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Two Basketball Teams and America's Global Role

August 04, 1996|Michael Clough | Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-chairman of the Stanley Foundation's New American Global Dialogue

ATLANTA — Today, the United States will end the 1996 Olympics in a familiar place: first in the gold-medal count. Since the beginning of the modern era, in 1898, it has been No. 1 in gold-medal accumulation at 13 of the 23 summer Olympics. But this year's triumph is different.

Before World War II, the United States was competing for a place in the world. Its main competitors were the great powers of Europe. The Olympic victories of American athletes reflected the early dawn light of a yet-to-be recognized "American century." After the war, a new competitor emerged, the Soviet Union, and the Olympics became a surrogate battleground in the Cold War. American athletes were cultural warriors, sometimes even pawns, in a global struggle for ideological supremacy. In both cases, the international context gave U.S. Olympic teams, and the country as a whole, a sense of a larger purpose.

Today, at the games in Atlanta, as in Washington, that sense of a larger purpose is lacking. Red, white and blue is everywhere in Atlanta, and Americans still loudly cheer their athletes' achievements, but it is no longer clear what meaning the individual victories have for America beyond the immediate field of competition. We have become, as pundits and politicians like to declare, "the world's only remaining superpower," but just what that entails remains elusive. The basketball competition at the Atlanta Olympics may offer a choice of which direction the country could take as it carries out its responsibility as the preeminent world power.

The most visible symbol of American athletic--and cultural--dominance at the '96 games is its basketball "Dream Team." Nonprofessional American teams won the first seven basketball gold medals. Then in Munich, in 1972, the U.S. team lost to the Soviets. The Americans won again in 1976 and 1984, yet by 1989, U.S. teams were no longer the clear favorite in international competition. But with the entry of American professional basketball players in 1992, the Olympic basketball competition has become just a battle for silver. Although the 1996 Dream Team's performance has been uneven, when not lackluster, the team has coasted to easy victories on the way toward gold. (One unhappy consequence of Japan's upset victory over America's baseball team is to add momentum to the drive to add professional players to the U.S. team in the year 2000.)

Like America's awesome military power in the post-Cold War world, the Dream Team's athletic superiority is a mixed blessing. Americans--and the world--are quick to cheer the team's flashy displays of basketball prowess. But something is missing: the emotion and determination that comes from real competition. And therein lies a danger for America, the sole superpower.

For some, the Dream Team symbolizes the worst side of U.S. international behavior in the post-Cold War world--a swaggering giant toying with its competitors. In explaining why he was hoping for a Yugoslav victory in today's gold-medal game, one fan summed up the situation: "The Dream Team is too powerful. It's not even a contest. We're praying for the upset of the century."

But there is another side to the basketball story in Atlanta, one that suggests a more positive superpower role for the United States. Today's battle for the bronze medal in basketball pits Australia against Lithuania. The story of how Lithuania, a small Baltic nation that was occupied by the Soviet Union for a half century, has emerged as a serious Olympic medal contender is an example of how the richness of American society can be used to help the world.

Lithuania's triumphs are, first and foremost, a tribute to the determination of its people. But their basketball team would not have been competing for a medal in the Georgia Dome today were it not for its American connections.

Basketball was first introduced in Lithuania in the 1930s by Frank Lubin, a Lithuanian American member of the U.S. team that won the first Olympic medal in basketball at the 1932 summer games in Los Angeles. By 1937, a Lithuanian team had won the European championship and was preparing to compete in the 1940 games. But WWII and a Russian invasion ended the country's Olympic dreams. For the next 50 years, Lithuanians would play Olympic basketball in Soviet uniforms.

In the 1992 Olympics, Lithuanian basketball players again played for Lithuania--and won the bronze medal. One of the team's leading stars, then and today, is Sarunas Marciulionis, the first Lithuanian to play in the National Basketball Assn. Marciulionis, who established a basketball school in his homeland, uses his American ties to obtain equipment and recruit coaches. For example, one Lithuanian coach is the son of Marciulionis' first NBA coach, Don Nelson, and fund-raising for the team has been boosted by sales of T-shirts designed by the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

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