How the Budding USA-France Basketball Rivalry DevelopedRoundup
tags: basketball, Sports History, Olympic Games
Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian, consultant, and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. She’s a member of Sport & Démocratie and a Research Associate with the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London.
On Tuesday, the world’s top-ranked women’s basketball team, the United States, will play its first Olympic group phase game in Tokyo. But the team’s toughest group phase game is likely to come Aug. 2 against fifth-ranked France.
The French team, Les Bleues, is intimately acquainted with the style, tactics and hoops culture of the Americans thanks to nearly half of the Olympic team having played in the United States. And the men’s Olympic competition already proved how dangerous the French can be to the Americans. On Sunday, a Les Bleus team full of NBA players upset Coach Gregg Popovich’s U.S. team, 83-76.
France’s ability to challenge the United States in men’s and women’s basketball in Tokyo (and women’s 3x3 basketball; the American men did not qualify) stems in large part from the long history of basketball diplomacy between the two countries, one that reveals the power of sports for cultural exchange.
Sports diplomacy is everywhere during the Tokyo Games. The Japanese hosts are using the Olympics to project their culture, ideals and values while providing ways for visitors — this year, just Olympic delegations, media and limited VIPs, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — to learn more about the country and its people. Athletes from different countries mix and engage with each other in the Olympic Village, in the process learning about other sports, cultures and peoples.
This international exchange has long extended to Olympic basketball. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the men’s gold medal games were about much more than basketball, as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for bragging rights. Victory on the court burnished the credentials of their respective ideological systems for the worldwide audience. The same was true in 1976 when women’s basketball debuted, as the Soviets won the first women’s basketball gold medal while the United States settled for silver.
Perhaps the best known of these Cold War clashes was the 1972 men’s gold medal game. when U.S. guard Doug Collins seemed to give his team a one point victory with two foul shots in the game’s waning seconds. But the referees had the teams replay the last three seconds, allowing the Soviets to hit a controversial buzzer beater for a 51-50 win. The U.S. team refused to accept their silver medals and the game exposed how the sporting terrain could be used to broadcast geopolitical interests.
U.S.-French Olympic basketball games have never had the same ideological stakes. Instead, they’ve displayed the ties binding the two allies — a byproduct of person-to-person informal sports diplomacy, which has allowed for cultural, technical and knowledge exchanges.