Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Summer

A Canadian game

An outline of hoop history, including its Canadian origins and American dominance.

But the first match was played in the USA- a country that's given rise to some of the world's best ballers


Canadian physician and teacher Dr. James Naismith (1861-1939) invented the game of basketball in 1891. Above, two boys stand on the first basketball court in the gymnasium of the School for Christian Workers, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1900s. ((Hulton Archive/Getty Images) )


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It wasn't too long ago, in Sydney 2000, that Canada sent both a men's and a women's team to the Olympics. Leading the way were national stars Steve Nash and Stacey Dales-Schulman. Since then, Canada' s Olympic involvement has taken a turn. Both teams failed to qualify for Athens 2004, and Beijing doesn't look promising. The women's team is officially out of the tournament and the men have one last chance to qualify in July. They'll compete with 12 teams for one of three spots. (Stay tuned for a July update.)

It would be a shame if they don't make it, since Canada's basketball tradition is a long and storied one. It starts with the inventor, Dr. James Naismith, who was born and educated in Canada. He created an indoor game in 1891 that has evolved into the game now played in more than 200 countries. Naismith devised a game for a group of international students at YMCA Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts. There were 13 rules and two peach baskets at either end of the room. With the use of a soccer ball and nine players aside, the first recorded organized game was played on January 20, 1892.

Men - Gold Medallists

2000 USA

1996 USA

1992 USA

1988 Soviet Union

1984 USA

1980 Yugoslavia

1976 USA

1972 Soviet Union

1968 USA

1964 USA

1960 USA

1956 USA

1952 USA

1936 USA


Women - Gold Medallists

2000 USA

1996 USA

1992 Unified Team

1988 USA

1984 USA

1980 Soviet Union

1976 Soviet Union

Dribbling in the drizzle

First played as a demonstration sport in 1904, 1924 and the 1928 Olympics, basketball debuted as an official sport at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They didn't have an indoor venue for it— a problem when a rainstorm threatened to drown the gold-medal match between the U.S. and Canada.

By the second half, the court was swamped with so much water that the players could not dribble the ball on the gravel surface. Each team managed only two baskets in the second half, with the final score being 19-8 for the U.S.

That victory would mark the beginning of the U.S.'s 36-year basketball gold rush. The Americans carried a winning streak of 62 wins into the controversial gold medal final against the Soviet Union in 1972. The Americans argued that time ran out, but after officials ruled in favour of putting a few more seconds back on the clock, the Soviets hit the winning basket. The American players, upset with the poor officiating, refused to accept their silver medals.

The U.S. won gold again in 1976 and 1984, but didn't compete in 1980 because of the Western boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. again failed to capture gold in 1988 when their team of young amateurs lost to veteran international teams, prompting the U.S. to fight for the inclusion of professional basketball players in the Olympics.

Here comes the Dream Team
Michael Jordan of the United States goes up for two during a game against Germany at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. ((Mike Powell/Getty Images))

The pros debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games. The question wasn't whether the U.S. would win, but by how much. The collection of NBA superstars, dubbed the "Dream Team," included Michael Jordan, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Larry Bird and other elite NBA players on its roster, and they were barely tested by their opponents, who often asked for autographs and photos after the games.

But in the long run, Barcelona may have helped the rest of the world more than the U.S. The sport was always popular in places like Lithuania and Yugoslavia, but now people in South America and Asia were becoming increasingly attracted to the sport as they became more exposed to the stars from the NBA.

Prior to 1992, only two foreign-born and schooled players (Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis) had ever been drafted in the NBA's first round. Since that time, 34 foreign-born and schooled players have joined the league, including stars such as Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, China's Yao Ming and Serbia and Montenegro's Peja Stojakovic.

The U.S. encountered little resistance in Atlanta in 1996, but by Sydney in 2000 most of the NBA legends had retired and the American team could no longer coast on its reputation. At times the U.S. was dominant: it defeated New Zealand by 48 points and China by 47 in the round robin, and in a game against France, Vince Carter leaped over seven-foot French centre Fred Weis in one of the most impressive displays of athleticism in Olympic history.

USA's Carlos Boozer fights for the ball with Lithuania's team captain Saulius Stombergas during the bronze medal match at the 2004 Athens Olympics. ((Don Emmert/Getty Images))

But the games were much closer; two games against Lithuania, who went on to win its third straight bronze medal, were decided by seven and two points respectively. The Americans did win the gold again, but people to started to wonder how long it would be before the Americans lost a game.

Two years later at the world championships, Argentina provided the answer. Led by Emmanuel Ginobili, Argentina put on a clinic in team basketball that left the Americans exposed for what they were: a hastily-gathered collection of all-stars, but not much of a team. Ten years ago, that was good enough. But not any more. The next day the U.S. lost in the quarterfinals to Yugoslavia, robbing them of a chance for a medal.

International hoop stars

Despite American supremacy, the most enduring basketball Olympian comes from south of the equator. Brazil's Oscar Schmidt played in six Olympic Games, scoring 1,093 points. He retired after the Sydney Olympics having never won a medal.

Contrast that with Sergei Belov from the Soviet Union; he won four medals from 1968 to 1980, including the controversial gold against the U.S. in 1972. He was also the first international player to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and was considered one of the great shooting guards of any era.

Women's hoop dreams

Women's basketball was introduced in 1976, and the U.S. has been the most successful nation, albeit not nearly as dominant as their male counterparts.

The American women have won gold in five of the last six Olympics and have won a medal in every Olympics in which they have participated. They won silver in their first Games in 1976 and added a bronze in 1992. The Soviet Union was the other women's basketball powerhouse, winning gold at the first two Olympic competitions and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Unified team captured gold in 1992.

A Russian Giant

Without question the most dominant women's basketball player was Uljana Semjonova, the seven-foot Latvian centre who played for the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. In 18 years of international competition, she won nothing less than gold.

She won two Olympic golds in 1976 and 1980, three world championships and 11 European championships. In the title game against the United States in 1976, Semjonova scored 32 points against fellow future-Hall-of-Famer Anne Meyers. Twelve times in 15 years between 1970 and 1985, she was voted the most popular athlete in Latvia.

American point guard Teresa Edwards may not be able to claim the dominance of Semjonova, but she does boast the most hardware. She participated in five Olympics from 1984 to 2000, winning four gold and one bronze. She also holds the unique distinction of being the youngest gold medalist in women's basketball (age 20 in 1984) and the oldest gold medalist in women's basketball (age 36 in 2000).

Steve Nash

Canada's Steve Nash in action at the 2000 Sydney Games. ((Andy Lyons/Getty Images))

Canada had better teams than the one they sent to Sydney eight years ago. But they've never had a better player.

Steve Nash didn't look the part; he was usually the smallest player on the court and sported his trademark shaggy locks in an era of shaved heads and cornrows.

But the point guard from Victoria, B.C. relentlessly pushed the ball up the court in his own one-man fast-break style and knocked down three-point shots whenever his team needed him.

Canada boasted early upsets of Yugoslavia and Australia en route to a perfect record in round-robin play. But a medal was not to be; a quarter-final loss to a solid French team knocked the team out of contention. Canada would finish seventh, albeit with an impressive record of 5-2.

For Nash, the Olympics was a springboard to greater things; he won the starting job with the Dallas Mavericks that season and in 2003 was the first Canadian named to an NBA All-Star team. But "Hair Canada" first made his mark in Sydney.

Jack Donohue

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the glory years of the Canadian national team. Jack Donohue — an American who had coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in high school — was the national team coach from 1972 to 1988, and he brought with him a winning attitude that was infectious. Under his guidance, Canada would finish fourth twice, the best standing for the country since the 1936 Olympics.

Canada's teams under Donohue had their chances to win a medal, but they were often victims of bad timing. In Montreal, Canada lost to the U.S. in the semifinals and expected to play Yugoslavia for the bronze medal, but the Yugoslavs upset the heavily favoured Soviet Union, and Canada lost to the powerful Soviets in the bronze-medal game.

Another opportunity was lost in 1980 because of the boycott, but the program proved its worth when it won a surprise victory at the World University Games in 1983, beating an American team that included Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.

In Los Angeles in 1984 they faced a similar situation as in Montreal. A loss to the U.S. in the semifinals led to another tough loss in the bronze-medal match, this time against Yugoslavia. And finally, in the swan song for Donohue as coach, Canada almost upset the Americans in 1988, losing an early round game 76-70. Canada's national team members during this era included Leo Rautins, Eli Pasquale, Mike Smrek and Jay Triano, the current coach of the national team.

Donohue died in 2003.

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