(ATR) As the fifth and final continental championship in women's basketball wraps up this weekend in Italy, the sport's growth and scope is apparent both in the teams qualifying for the Beijing Olympics and those that still have a chance. Teams Battle for Olympics Spots
|Team USA has a chance for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold, but the competition is getting tougher. (Getty Images)
The United States swept through the FIBA Americas tournament in Valdivia, Chile, last week in its bid to regain the top spot in women's basketball. The Americans, who won three straight Olympic gold medals from 1996-2004, were forced to qualify for an Olympic slot for the first time since 1980 because of a third-place finish at the 2006 World Championships in Brazil.
"We got the monkey off our back," U.S. player Tina Thompson said.
At the same time on the other side of the world in Dunedin, New Zealand, South Pacific champion Fiji won the right to compete in the inaugural pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in late June. Five teams will qualify for the Games from the last-chance tourney in a site yet to be determined.
"The whole idea for a qualifying tournament is to give us a higher standard of competition," Bob Elphinston, president of FIBA, the international basketball federation, told Around the Rings.
Seven teams have already punched their ticket to Beijing: China, as host; Australia, the reigning world champion and 2000-2004 Olympic silver medalist; and continental champions United States, New Zealand, Mali and Korea. The final automatic berth will go to the team winning EuroBasket 2007 this week. Russia, the 2006 world championships runner-up which knocked off the U.S. in Brazil, is the favorite.
“The explosion of technology certainly has provided a window to the world,” said Chris Plonsky, USA Basketball’s vice president for women. “And the fact that when the United States can get defeated in a major competition, even though we don't like it, it sort of fires the competitive juices of other countries to say, 'Hey we can compete at that level.' The U.S. has always been the target.”
Up and Coming Teams
|Fiji's Seini Dobui dribbles past a defender from big neighbor New Zealand during the Oceania tournament. (FIBA)
Mali will be making its first trip to the Games in women's basketball, following previous African champions Nigeria (which won an Olympic game in 2004), Senegal and Zaire.
But it's Fiji, an island nation with fewer than 1 million people, which symbolizes the game's global reach. Fiji was third in the FIBA Oceania tournament, although it was outscored by the Australian Opals by more than 100 points, 136-32, and by New Zealand's Tall Ferns 118-31.
Australia’s bye into the Olympics as world champion opened the door for Fiji.
Opals coach Jan Stirling visited the Fijian locker room and told them to be proud of representing their country.
“Fifty years ago, the Opals went to their first world championships with seven players by boat to Brazil and played Russia," Stirling said.
"That's where Fiji are now and we know how hard it is. Even our young players have been fortunate to come through a wonderful basketball system. They have to learn to respect other nations and athletes that come from a system that is very young and in its infancy."
Elphinston called Fiji's emergence on the world basketball scene "really encouraging. We're starting to see this in a number of areas, particularly in the women's game. The women's game is really starting to expand. Probably as many women play the game of basketball as do the men."
|Serbia made its first independent appearance at Eurobasket this year, while French participation stretches back to 1938. (Getty Images)
The women's game has been dominated by the U.S., Russia, and Australia, with Brazil also a top power. The second tier is composed of European teams (such as Czech Republic, Spain, Lithuania and France), plus Cuba and China.
New contenders include Belgium, Sweden, New Zealand, Serbia, Argentina and the African nations, although Elphinston said the women do not yet have the depth of the men’s side, where there are 16-20 top teams.
|FIBA president Bob Elphinston says basketball is second only to soccer in world popularity. (FIBA)
Among FIBA's 213 member nations, Elphinston estimates that 175-200 have women's basketball. In Pacific Islands such as Tuvalu and Tonga, the women play on mixed teams with the men. FIBA looks forward to more participation from the Middle East as they overcome prejudices and religious interventions.
"Soccer talks about being the world game," said Elphinston, who became FIBA president last year and is serving a four-year term. "We talk about basketball as the second most played team sport in the world."
He said that FIFA has been able to develop at a greater pace because of the enormous amount of money from soccer's World Cup. Force Behind Basketball Growth
Elphinston said that FIBA, which includes five women on the 20-member executive board, "quite definitely has gone out of its way to help promote women's basketball. The modern game today is also attractive to women and young girls. It's aggressive, high scoring. It's not about being big or tall; it's about being athletic.
"And there's a lot more money in the game for women."
|Guard Mwadi Mabika usually plays for the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks, but joined her home team DR Congo for the African continental championships. (Getty Images)
The WNBA, which began in the late 1990s in the United States, has a high level of international players.
"The establishment of the WNBA in the late 1990s created the incentive and the trigger for women's basketball to be more recognized and financially recompensed," Elphinston said.
Top players have also been able to make a living playing for European clubs in countries such as France, Spain, Germany and Italy.
"The Russian league is very strong because they've got so much money," Elphinston said. "Investors in Russia have seen basketball as a good opportunity to be involved. Many of the world's best players play in the Russian league for what is very good pay."
Australia has a semi-professional women's league, and the Opals’ success at the World Championships has also been a boost.
The World Championships in Brazil were seen on television in more than 100 countries. However, the men’s Worlds were screened in almost 145 countries, so the women still need to bridge that gap.
Sponsorship opportunities have also grown, although not at the same pace as the men, where the NBA has been a popular for more than 50 years. Men’s basketball has also been an Olympic sport since 1936 while the women joined the Olympic program in 1976. Beijing Outlook
FIBA believes the Beijing Olympics "is going to be fantastic for basketball,” Elphinston said. “Basketball is absolutely booming in China.” Chinese superstar Yao Ming, who plays in the NBA, has helped popularize the game.
The Wukesong basketball arena, which will seat about 18,000, “will be a good legacy for the sport after the Olympics,” Elphinston said.
He said he has gotten indications from ticket sales in China that both men’s and women’s basketball will be sold out.
By qualifying for Beijing at the FIBA America’s tournament, the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about going through the pre-Olympic tourney, which conflicts with the WNBA season.
“What our women did was gallant,” Plonsky said, “You lose the wrong game and it's a tough system, coming back through and having to go on the road and qualify.”
The U.S. had a tough opening game against Cuba, then won the next three games by an average of 56 points before defeating Cuba again in the final. U.S. at Crossroads, Star Power Needed Internationally
Teresa Edwards, a five-time Olympic medalist from 1984-2000 who is now on the USA Basketball board of directors, has seen women’s basketball progress. It’s now experiencing growing pains in the United States, she said, just as the men’s game did.
“I'm a part of the old generation and probably at the beginning of the new generation,” she said. “I feel in my heart of hearts that we've begun to take the game for granted.”
|Today's female players benefit from the recognition and acceptance earned by their predecessors, says Teresa Edwards. (Getty Images)
She thinks modern players approach the game differently than the game’s pioneers did.
“We worked our tails off to get the game to the acceptance level of the American public,” Edwards said.
“They think that's owed to them now.
“We’re catching up to where the men were at one time; they got to the glitz and glamour of the sport, not just the competitive nature of wanting to beat someone.”
Edwards said losing the World Championships jump-started the U.S. team. “We had to lose in the World Championships to find the innocence of our approach and to work our butts off again,” she said.
“Once we get spanked, we realize our mistakes and we get it together and that's been our history so far. It took that wake-up call.”
The Americans also have limited training opportunities together compared to other nations which train year-round, said Plonsky of USA Basketball.
“We’re still managing to find success with the type of talent we do have, even in short-term environment,” Plonsky said.
“The women have shown an incredible resiliency.”
The U.S. also benefits from top coaching. Anne Donovan, the center on gold-medal teams in 1984 and 1988, is the U.S. head coach through the Beijing Games. Donovan is also head coach of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. At 6-foot-8, she is taller than all of her current national team players.
As the women’s game has expanded, its stars have also become international. Lisa Leslie, one of the more visible faces of the U.S. national team, missed the 2007 season due to pregnancy. The U.S. found new stars in players such as Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, who is still a collegiate player at the University of Tennessee. Australia has the tandem of Lauren Jackson, the WNBA’s most valuable player, and Penny Taylor. Russia is led by Maria Stepanova.
“We have some good names to be able to promote,” Elphinston said. “But again, it's symptomatic of the public's reaction to women's sport around the world. People unfortunately, women included, prefer to watch the men's sport.” Your best source of news about the Olympics is www.aroundtherings.com , for subscribers only.