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.