FOX Sports Exclusive
US women need a defining moment
As Geno Auriemma was ruminating on what the Olympics meant to him, he harkened back to snapshots from his formative years: Franz Klammer’s electrifying downhill run in Innsbruck, Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ black-fisted salute for solidarity in Mexico City, and Gabrielle Andersen-Scheiss staggering into the Los Angeles Coliseum at the end of the marathon.
“For me, the Olympics are moments,” said Auriemma, the coach of the United States women’s basketball team. “Those kinds of moments are moments you never forget. You just remember those images — that’s what the Olympics have always been.”
A prominent theme heading into these Olympics, falling on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, is the celebration of women. The United States, for the first time, will have more women than men participating. Saudi Arabia will have women participating for the first time. Malaysia will have a pregnant woman compete in shooting.
There could be a parade of gold for the United States women in soccer, water polo, volleyball and track.
And yet, amid this, there is one sport that runs counter to the narrative.
Few have had the success over the last 20 years of the United States women’s basketball team. It has won four consecutive gold medals, 33 consecutive Olympic games and has gone 72-1 in major competitions over the last 16 years, routinely routing everyone but the plucky Australians who handed them their lone loss six years ago.
But despite that success, the Americans comprise a team that — if not overlooked — is largely uncelebrated. The current women's team lacks the type of buzz and marketing muscle that followed the team in Atlanta, where it began the run of gold medals, largely as co-stars with the men rather than as an opening act.
What that has done, perhaps, is create a nearly impossible standard for this team — where winning gold is not nearly as great a task as endearing itself to the public.
Interest in the WNBA, which began on the heels of the Atlanta Olympics and the immensely popular 1995 UConn team that went undefeated, has fizzled. And the most intriguing American woman, Brittney Griner, chose not to play in the Olympics.
When the team held a 45-minute press conference Thursday, players spread out in seats around the conference room but rarely was there more than a reporter or two around each player. The biggest crowd, by far, was drawn by the coach, Auriemma.
All of this begs the question: do the American women, dominant as they may be, have a defining Olympic moment in them?
“What’s the greatest moment you remember from the U.S. Soccer women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl?” Auriemma asked. “The shirt coming off.”
He was referring to Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration after making the winning penalty kick in the final — a match that, as Auriemma noted, was largely forgettable.
“Does anybody remember the score, or who played great that game or what led up to the end?” he continued. “So moments are created sometimes when you least expect it. When you’re as dominant as this program has been, it’s hard to create a new moment.”
Might it be a dunk by Parker — a la Vince Carter over the hapless Frenchman Frederic Weis? Or a dazzling pass by Taurasi that recalls Steve Nash? Or a crossover by Seimone Augustus that brings to mind Allen Iverson?
Such comparisons are part of the problem. No matter what the women do — how much more skilled players are today than they were 16 years ago — they cannot escape comparisons to the men.
“You’ve seen the games,” Parker said of sharing the same venue for exhibition games in Washington D.C. and Manchester, and the differences in crowds. “It is what it is. We have to grow, but we take it in stride. We don’t worry about it. They’re the best in the world. It’s an honor to be compared to them.”
And yet that is a burden few other women athletes have to bear. Women’s soccer, even at the top end, is eons behind the men in terms of skill and tactical awareness and few expect the American women to play like Barcelona, just win like them. Nobody diminishes the performance of Natalie Coughlin by saying she is no Michael Phelps.
“If you’re in a different sport, and you’re a woman athlete and you may be the best in the world at what you do, and there’s no comparable thing on the men’s side, it might be easy to stand out a little bit,” Auriemma said. “But for us, every time people watch us play, you know, Diana — well, she’s not Kobe Bryant. Of course she’s not. So there’s always that. Nobody, when they see Serena Williams play, goes well, you know what, she’s not as good as Pete Sampras. She’s not Roger Federer. That doesn’t exist in other sports, but in basketball for some reason it does.”
Auriemma said if it is possible for women’s basketball to draw a bigger audience, it will have to do one of two things — lose, an option he does not like. Or play an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, an option he would like.
“Playing an ugly brand of basketball — for any basketball team — during these Olympics is not going to help our sport,” Auriemma said. “The beauty of the sport is the beauty of the play. We would love to play basketball the way Spain plays soccer. You know the ball moves,” he paused, snapping his fingers to mimic their staccato passing. “We’re not trying to be like Italy and win 1-0 on penalty kicks. I don’t think that helps anybody. Hopefully we can create a style of play that’s pleasing and enjoyable to watch and exciting — and that’s a challenge — and still win a gold medal. Winning won’t be good enough to raise the bar.”
To some players — Augustus, Parker and Sue Bird, who is playing in her third Olympics — that sort of ambition is not something they are interested in. They are simply players playing and their focus is on winning games, not attention.
If that is the case, they might have to be content — in an Olympics that may be defined by women’s achievements — with settling for gold.