What can the Olympics possibly offer in Week 2 to match the drama and glory of Michael Phelps’ epic quest for eight gold medals that dominated Week 1?
That’s not a fair question. No week in any Olympics has matched the one cobbled together in the Water Cube by Phelps. But just because his work is done and he’s been cleared to sample Beijing’s throbbing nightlife scene doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to watch and no heroes left to crown.
Much of the focus for the United States will be on track and field, but those will be individual performances, few of them lasting more than a minute, and many much less; track is the ultimate short-attention-span sport. The bulk of the medals will be awarded there because there are so many events. But the big stories, the ones that are told by chapters over a period of days, are in the team events.
If Week 1 for Team USA belonged to an individual, Week 2 belongs to the teams. It starts with the men’s basketball team and its quest to restore the reputation and dominance of American hoops. But the so-called Redeem Team isn’t the best American team here. That distinction goes to the women, and there’s a question of whether it’s the women’s softball or basketball team that is the true Dream Team of these Olympics and the three that went before it.
Both the softball and basketball teams are aiming at their fourth straight gold medal. Both are undefeated here and virtually unbeatable for more than a decade. Both are setting new standards of excellence every time they take the field or court.
Go ahead and call them both Dream Teams. You won’t be wrong. The basketball team, led by all-time great Lisa Leslie, is 43-3 in Olympic competition since the sport was introduced in 1976. They finished second in that competition to the Soviet Union. In 1992 in Barcelona, they were upset again by a Unified Team made up from the remnants of the defunct Soviet Union. Since then, they’ve won every Olympic gold.
There’s no sign they won’t rule the hard court for a fourth straight Olympics. Until beating Spain by a mere 23 points in their fourth preliminary game, they had been winning by an average of 47 points.
The men’s team gets the Dream Team and Redeem Team nicknames. The women’s team just gets the gold.
The softball team is just as good, matching the women’s basketball team’s dominance since 1996, the year the sport was added to the Olympics. They’ve been so dominant, they’ve been blamed for the International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop softball from the 2012 London Games. So this is your last chance to see Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and slugger Crystl Bustos in action for at least eight years. Enjoy it while you can.
They are joined by the women’s volleyball and soccer teams. Neither is as dominant this year as the hoops and softball squads, but they’re both in the medal round. And don’t forget the women’s water polo team, top-ranked in the world and playing in the semifinals on Tuesday against archrival Australia.
If it’s emotion you’re looking for, tune into the men’s volleyball medal round. The American men’s coach, Hugh McCutcheon, lost his father-in-law, Todd Bachman, who was stabbed to death while touring Beijing’s historic Drum Tower by an unemployed Chinese drifter, who then leaped from the tower to his death. McCutcheon’s mother-in-law, Barbara Bachman, was critically wounded in the attack, but has flown back to the States and is on her way to recovery.
The American team started play without McCutcheon and rolled to three wins. He rejoined them for their fourth win over China, the victory that guaranteed them a place in the quarterfinals. The United States men won gold in 1984 and 1988, when the team was led by Karch Kiraly, whom some consider the greatest to ever play the game. They won bronze in 1992 and have never medaled since. But this year, they’re on a mission, inspired by their coach’s courage in the midst of a tragic loss.
In addition to the indoor volleyball teams, both of the American women’s and men’s teams have made the medal round in beach volleyball.
The men’s soccer team didn’t make the medal round, but the women, who have a third-place finish in the 1997 World Cup to atone for, are also in the medal round. Women’s soccer, like softball, joined the Olympics in 1996. Unlike softball, it’s here to stay.
The American women won the first women’s World Cup in 1991 and the first Olympic tournament in 1996. They finished second to Norway in 2000, and took gold again in Athens. Norway remains their biggest rival.
Women’s water polo has been another powerful American team that’s reached the medal round of every international tournament it’s played in since the 2000 Olympics, when the sport joined the Games. The Americans finished second to Australia in Sydney that year and took bronze in Athens while Australia finished out of the medals.
This year, the United States comes into the Olympics ranked first in the world. But to get to the gold-medal game, they have to get past archrival Australia, the world’s second-ranked team, in the semifinals on Tuesday.
The men’s water polo team is also still in contention, but has to beat or tie Germany on Monday to advance to the medal round.