History of Olympic Basketball
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History of Olympic Basketball

Basketball was officially recognised as an Olympic sport in 1930 and made its debut in the men’s programme at the 1936 Berlin Games.

Dr James Naismith, the father of basketball, opened the tournament with the jump ball of the first game between France and Estonia. The USA went on to beat Canada in the Final.

After a 12-year hiatus because of the Second World War, the Olympics resumed in 1948 in London with 23 teams competing in the basketball tournament. France had a memorable run to the Final but fell to a mighty USA team.

A soporific Final between the USA and the Soviet Union at the 1952 Games led FIBA legislators to introduce the 30-second shot clock and the 10-second backcourt rule to reinvigorate basketball in the Olympics.

In 1960, the first pre-Olympic basketball saw Czechoslovakia, Spain, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland emerge from an 18-team field to join 11 automatically qualified countries for the Games in Rome.

The USA, featuring college legends Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy cruised to their fifth gold.


The Americans’ perfect run of taking gold at the first seven Olympic Basketball tournaments came to an end in 1972, when the Soviet Union edged them out 51-50 on Aleksander Below’s basket at the buzzer.

10 sept 1972: The Soviet team is given a second chance to try a last-second shot and makes this one during the Olympic gold medal game between the Soviets and the US during the Olympic games in Munich, West Germany. In a very controversial finish, the Soviets were declared the winner 51-50.Photo: © Rich Clarkson / Rich Clarkson & Associates

Basketball made its debut in the women’s Olympic programme at the 1976 Montreal Games with the Soviet Union emerging victorious from the six-team tournament, beating the USA 112-77 in the Final.  

The format for the men’s event changed, with the field restricted to 12 teams. Yugoslavia produced the upset by beating the Soviets 89-84 in the Semi-Final, but had no answers for the Americans in the Final.  

The USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, opening the Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament for a number of European teams.

The Soviets failed to reach the Final after losing to Italy (87-85) and Yugoslavia (101-91) in the Semi-Final Round. The trio of Dragan Kicanovic, Mirza Delibasic and Drazen Dalipagic led Yugoslavia to the gold medal with an 86-77 win over Italy.  

The Soviet Union powered their way to another gold medal in the women’s tournament, beating Hungary in the Final.  

In 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. In their absence, the hosts won gold in both the men’s and women’s tournament for the first time ever.  

With college stars Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, the American men’s team cruised to the Final where they faced a Spain side that had knocked Yugoslavia out in the Semi-Final. To no one’s surprise, Jordan led the charge and the USA won 96-65.  

The USA women’s team was star-laden in its own right, with Teresa Edwards and Cheryl Miller, and they took their first gold medal by beating Korea in the Final.  

The Soviets reclaimed the gold medal in Seoul in 1988. Arvydas Sabonis made the most of his 2.23 metres and 130 kilos to outplay David Robinson as the Soviets eliminated the USA in the Semi-Final 82-76 and then exacted a measure of revenge on Yugoslavia in the Final.

The USA women retained the gold following a 77-70 defeat of Yugoslavia in the Final, with Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain guiding them throughout the tournament.

When the Games of the XXV Olympiad opened in Barcelona in 1992, the world was a different place and it reflected in the Basketball Tournament.  

The Soviet Union, minus the Baltic countries, had become the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), while the break-up of Yugoslavia resulted in Croatia and Slovenia playing as independent countries.  

Meanwhile, the USA made the most of the NBA and FIBA coming closer together and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) no longer considered true professionals to be lepers.  

The Americans came to Spain with the superstars from the NBA who together formed the Dream Team.

1992 Gold medal ceremony: From L-R Bird, Pippen, Jordan, Drexler and Malone

USA head coach Chuck Daly was the envy of his counterparts for having Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone to name but a few.

The Americans made it back to the top of the podium, with Croatia and Lithuania either side of them.  

In the women’s tournament, the CIS avenged past defeats against the USA with a 79-73 victory in the Semi-Finals. With Natalia Zassoulskaia leading the charge, they saw off China 76-66 to take gold.  

More than a decade later, the basketball landscape looked quite a bit different.  

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Argentina took gold thanks to its ‘Golden Generation’ led by Manu Ginobili. Italy, relying on exemplary team play, made it all the way to the Final.  

The USA, Olympic champions in 1996 and 2000, had to settle for bronze. The writing was on the wall for Allen Iverson & Co after they lost their opening game against Puerto Rico.  

The Americans did reign supreme in the women’s tournament, winning their third gold medal in a row thanks to the right blend of veterans (Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson) and up-and-coming youngsters (Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings).  

Australia’s Lauren Jackson, was the tournament’s MVP, but Leslie subdued her in the Final.  

The USA men ended their eight-year wait for a gold medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing.  

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade headed the ‘Redeem Team’ that beat Spain 118-107 in the Final, a game that has come to be considered one of the greatest ever in international basketball.  

The American women, meanwhile, cruised to their fourth gold medal in a row, overwhelming each of their opponents along the way.  


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