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Is US sports dominance eroding?

ESPN columnist Mark Kreidler laments the apparent fact that "Americans just can't seem to dominate anymore" in international sports competitions:

Not to go all Johnny Stormfront on you, but allow me to cover some recent ground for the U.S. on the international sports scene:

• Women's basketball: Lost in the semis of the World Championship.

• Men's basketball: Lost in the semis of the World Championship.

• Baseball: Crapped out at the World Baseball Classic.

• Men's soccer: Didn't sneak out of group play at the World Cup.

• Men's tennis: Lost in the semifinals of the Davis Cup.

• Men's golf: Europe 18½, United States 9½ at The K Club in Straffan, Ireland. Another Ryder Cup romp at our expense.

In my view, Kreidler's argument relies on a small and possibly unrepresentative sample of evidence from a few recent competitions in a handful of sports. A broader, though still imperfect, measure of relative American sports prowess is performance in the Olympics, which includes a much wider range of sports. The US has easily topped the medal count in each of the last three summer Olympics. Moreover, the size of the US margin over the second-ranking country has not declined over time (101 medals to 63 for Russia in 1996; 97 to 88 (Russia) in 2000; 102-63 over China in 2004). Given that the 1996 result is somewhat inflated because the US team was at home, the data suggests that the overall US sports advantage may actually be increasing rather than declining. The winter Olympics medal count, in which the US has done far worse than in the Summer games historically, tells a similar story. In the 2002 and 2006 games, the US was a close second to perennial power Germany in the medal count. These were the two best US performances in the winter games ever, with the exception of 1932.

Nonetheless, Kreidler is certainly right to suggest that US dominance has indeed eroded in the sports of golf, baseball, tennis and basketball (the US was never much good in men's soccer, and the US team was even worse in the past than it is today). But these four are sports that until recently were popular only in the US and/or a handful of other nations. The newfound ability of other countries to defeat US teams on a regular basis is primarily the result of the four sports' increasing popularity abroad. This has attracted more and better foreign players, and given foreign coaches and trainers the resources needed to effectively emulate and sometimes surpass US techniques. It is unreasonable to expect the US to dominate these sports as completely as it did in the era when few foreigners cared about them. Ultimately, however, increasing international competition is a net plus - even for US fans - because it raises the quality of play. And when we do win, the victories will mean more because the opposition is now taking the game seriously.

Lev:

It is unreasonable to expect the US to dominate these sports as completely as it did in the era when few foreigners cared about them.


Yeah, and when the foreigners and their coaches are trained in the US.
9.26.2006 2:55am
j@j.com (mail):
Or, perhaps stellar players who find it relatively more lucrative to come to the U.S. to play professionally during the season find that the benefits of going home to play in inter-continental competitions have increased in the last couple decades. These benefits may be monetary or other. Oftentimes they are other.
9.26.2006 3:01am
Crunchy Frog:
The Olympics are full of pseudosports like freestyle skiing and rhythmic gymnastics that completely skew the medal counts. That synchronized swimming accounts for more gold medals than say, basketball, just shows the ridiculousness of overall tallies.
9.26.2006 3:29am
DK:
The US just doesn't value international competition in the same way. No US golfer is going to prepare for the Ryder Cup as carefully as for the Masters or other majors. The Europeans take it much more seriously. The same applies to other sports -- the Americans are more interested in money games than in international pride games.
9.26.2006 9:36am
Revonna LaSchatze:
Don't sweat it, Somin.
We all know what football games count.


Yeah, and when the foreigners and their coaches are trained in the US.

lol Luke Donald went to my school
9.26.2006 10:19am
SP:
I'd add that, for whatever reason, the selection process by the US many times is bizarre. I don't think you'll hear much of three of the four "rookies" on this Ryder Cup team ever again; frankly if we let the "fans" vote as if it were an All Star game we'd get a better team.
9.26.2006 12:26pm
Todd Henderson (mail):
The US failure to win at basketball is driven by two things: (1) growing international popularity, which can be seen by the number of non-US star players in the NBA; and (2) the focus on domestic, as opposed to international, success. The US team at the World Championships played together for a few months, as opposed to the many years that international teams spend playing together. This is a good thing, insofar as it shows basketball is still a team game. No one really believes that if we took 15 players, almost any 15 out of the top 100 in the US, and had them play together for 5 years, that they would lose to Greece. Greece may have 10 talented players who make a great team after years of experience and practice, but I would wager that the US has many hundreds of greater talent. Just consider one example: does anyone think that the Detroit Pistons championship team from 2004 would not have been able to win the gold in the Olympics?
9.26.2006 12:39pm
pp (mail):
Todd Henderson is probably right, but when the slam dunk contest becomes an Olympic medal sport, we will definitely be gold, silver, and bronze.
9.26.2006 12:46pm
DCP:
One reason we keep losing international basketball games is because the refs actually officiate the game according to the rules. Officiating in the NBA is a joke. They don't call travelling and they give star players (such as Dwayne Wade in this year's finals) the benefit of the doubt on foul calls (ie, when they mug a guy on defense it's no foul but when they miss a shot on a drive they MUST have been fouled). The int'l refs call the game straight up.

There is also a different style of play that emphasizes strategy and team play as opposed to the NBA dunk fest and we haven't figured out how to crack that nut. We would probably be better off sending the Princeton college team since they at least know how to execute/defend a pick and roll.
9.26.2006 1:04pm
Steve H (mail):
Don't be too fooled by the increasing US medal counts in the Winter Olympics. A lot of the US's medals have come in snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and other "X-Games" type events that have been added recently. IIRC, if you look at the more traditional events, the US has been doing rather well, but has not been dominating.
9.26.2006 1:06pm
Rex:
There is also a different style of play that emphasizes strategy and team play as opposed to the NBA dunk fest and we haven't figured out how to crack that nut.

It's not that we haven't yet figured that out, but rather that we've forgotten. Over the last fifteen years the NBA style of play has changed dramatically. Due to factors like Michael Jordan, ESPN, and the influx of very young players, NBA players now concentrate on developing individual offensive skills at the expense of graceful, coordinated team play. Even with the rise in foreign talent, I believe that the Laker, Celtic, and Piston teams of the 1980s would dominate today's international squads, let alone league-wide all-star teams.
9.26.2006 1:30pm
Toby:
I blame soccer moms.
9.26.2006 2:20pm
bob montgomery:
This is all a bit ridiculous. Most of these international competitions are all loser-out tournaments - one bad game, one twisted ankle, and you're out of the tournament. It makes for great fun, great TV, and keeps the injuries to a minimum, but it isn't a good way to determine who is actually the "best" team. There is a reason that every pro league in existence plays seasons to determine the best team(s) and that most pro championships are best-of *series*, not just one-off games.
9.26.2006 2:25pm
Ilya Somin:
The Olympics are full of pseudosports like freestyle skiing and rhythmic gymnastics that completely skew the medal counts. That synchronized swimming accounts for more gold medals than say, basketball, just shows the ridiculousness of overall tallies.

I agree that there are some flaws in the overall medal counts. However, it's important to remember that the largest clusters of US medals in the summer Olympics come in track and field and swimming, which are the two most popular summer Games sports. The US almost never wins anything in synchronized swimming, and its record in basketball over the last 3 Olympics is quite good (3 straight golds by the women; 2 golds and 1 bronze by the men).
9.26.2006 3:01pm
Mikeyes (mail):
The Olympics were a lot better when winning a medal meant something - such as whose political philosophy was better. That way the governments got more involved and... Wait, that meant boycotts, state sponsored cheating, questionable gender determinations, and defecting athletes. Maybe it wasn't so good.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, who really cares? Who watched the entire Ryder Cup? Or each of the FIBA championships (OK, I did, but..)? What difference does it make to a country that still prefers its homegrown sports of baseball, football, and basketball not played by international rules?
9.26.2006 3:19pm
Al Maviva (mail) (www):
Tours de France - either 10 or 11 out of the last 20, 7 or 8 out of the last 8, depending on the outcome of Floyd's protest... Yeah, we're really stinking it up there. (Hint for the clueless: Greg Lemond took three of 'em when Lance was still in middle school.)
9.26.2006 3:45pm
Chukuang:
I believe this was the first time in the open era (post 1969) that no US woman made into the semifinals of any grand slam tennis tournament. The men didn't have much of a year either, with the slight exception of the US open.

At the same time, there were still many women who learned much of their tennis in the US, like Sharapova, who did well.
9.26.2006 3:56pm
Christopher Fotos (mail) (www):
I'd add that, for whatever reason, the selection process by the US many times is bizarre. I don't think you'll hear much of three of the four "rookies" on this Ryder Cup team ever again; frankly if we let the "fans" vote as if it were an All Star game we'd get a better team.

The selection process for the US was based on a point system intended to take into account more recent victories than the old system, which reached back two years IIRC.

Interesting overall analysis by Ilya. As for the Ryder Cup, the Euros just have a deeper bench than we do these days. And the U.S. really doesn't have a good youth movement right now, which bodes ill for the future. Without Tiger, the U.S. doesn't have a truly dominating player, which is scary. And I agree with the conventional wisdom that the Euros gel much better as a team.

And yet the U.S. has done better with majors over the years.

Two factors that make sense to me: The Euros play team formats more than we do, growing up. And one that never occured to me until Tiger said it--the European venues are typically on courses often played on Tour by the Europeans. The US venues are rotated around a lot more--so whatever local knowledge the US might have is squandered.
9.26.2006 5:06pm
jsmith (mail):
The Europeans didn't have a hope of dominating the Ryder Cup until, well, Europeans were added to the British team, which was (and is) woefully uncompetitive. And yes, the US has done better--far better--with majors over the years. Who are the Europeans who've won majors recently? Paul Lawrie is the only one who leaps immediately to mind since Faldo (and Woosnam and Ballesteros). Shoot--the South Africans have done better than the Europeans in recent years, and still nowhere near the Americans.

I am dubious that the Europeans have a deeper bench than the Americans. (Shaun Micheel, anyone?) And what European player is dominant? Sergio? Monty? Harrington? Not really (to say the least).

There was an interesting theory bandied about a few cycles ago that the world wars had decimated British (and European) males, while leaving the Americans relatively unscathed. This seems to explain British weakness from the 1960s (or before) through early 1990s, and perhaps explains the comeback since then.

But I attribute the recent lack of success primarily to what an earlier commenter said--Americans simply don't care a whole heck of a lot. There's not a whole lot of individual glory in the Ryder Cup. And despite the best efforts of a number of print and TV pundits to make it a big deal, most American players believe their name will be made through individual accomplishments. And they believe that because, I suspect, that's how most American fans measure their worth.
9.27.2006 12:26am
Lev:
"NBA basketball" these days has amazing athaletes who perform amazing feats of athaleticism, but it doesn't seem to have much in common with the actual game of basketball.
9.27.2006 1:31am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The NBA decline has largely happenned because the league got to big and the teams are now sold like early sixties rock bands. Instead of Gerry and the Pacemakers, we now have LeBron and the Cavaliers, or Kobe and the Lakers.

As for our decline generally, I think we are still pretty much tops in American Football and Nascar. But in Cricket and Australian Rules Football, not so much.
9.27.2006 12:09pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The NBA decline has largely happenned because the league got too big and the teams are now sold like early sixties rock bands. Instead of Gerry and the Pacemakers, we now have LeBron and the Cavaliers, or Kobe and the Lakers.

As for our decline generally, I think we are still pretty much tops in American Football and Nascar. But in Cricket and Australian Rules Football, not so much.
9.27.2006 12:11pm
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
I don't think the Ryders Cup stands as a true test of golf. Is "alternate-shot" golf? 4 ball? Those are games you invent to gamble with your friends. Would you settle a soccer world championship with 6 on 6 indoor soccer? Baskeball with a Man/Woman alternate shot 3 point contest? Football with a Punt/Kick/Pass competition?

The true test of golf is 1 person against the field and exemplified in the Majors.
9.27.2006 6:39pm
TomCS:
As global nutrition standards improve, and sport, and access to coaching opens up, the inbuilt US advantage of the last 25 years will inevitably go. Move on, no story here.

But the inability of US coaches (outside the largely private game of baseball) to coach a team, rather that bring on individuals is a global issue: Americans have lost the ability not just the willingness to be team players. It's no longer the US cavalry who come over the crest, it's Tom Cruise, or...or... .
9.27.2006 10:29pm
TomCS:
As global nutrition standards improve, and sport, and access to coaching opens up, the inbuilt US advantage of the last 25 years will inevitably go. Move on, no story here.

But the inability of US coaches (outside the largely private game of baseball) to coach a team, rather that bring on individuals is a global issue: Americans have lost the ability not just the willingness to be team players. It's no longer the US cavalry who come over the crest, it's Tom Cruise, or...or... .
9.27.2006 10:29pm