There’s no better place to brandish soft power than the Olympics. An ascendant Hitler tried, and failed, to espouse Aryan physical superiority during the Berlin games in 1936; the Spaniards showed the world they could shake off the weighty legacy of Franco in Barcelona in 1992; and China spent $40 billion to announce their arrival as a world power in the Beijing Games. (My favorite moment: the 2,008 drummers in perfect synchronization which seemed to say through a very thin veil: “we’re rich, we’re organized, and there’s a lot of us.”) Once the games open, though, it’s a chance for every country to compete for social currency as if those gold medals were worth their weight in geopolitical clout.
While fencing or boxing might be a better metaphor for international conflict, the international interest in those sports is tepid at best. Swimming, athletics, and gymnastics draw huge crowds but success, outside of a few team events, is based on the trials of an individual rather than the chemistry and volatility of one team versus another. But since we’re discussing sports form an urban perspective there’s really only one competition that makes sense: basketball.
For people who don’t follow international basketball, it’s best to think about the level of competition as two upward sloping lines separated by a significant gulf—the Americans on top and everyone else lagging behind.
Basketball is also a city game; you just need a ball, a patch of concrete and a reasonable facsimile of a hoop. The migration of Americans (especially the South-North diaspora of African American communities) in the 20th century towards urban centers ensured that the concentration of exposure and competition would become an iterative phenomenon; every generation would be better than the last because competition would improve as the sport became more entrenched in urban culture.
Dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rapid urbanization of its satellite states that followed allowed more than a dozen countries to field independent teams for the first time in decades during the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Spain’s genesis as a basketball powerhouse can be attributed to the fact that three of the best Spanish players to ever lace up are from Barcelona: Pau and Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio, as is the current starting guard for the national team, Juan Carlos Navarro.
Other competitive national teams like Argentina, Greece, Turkey, and Italy have all seen positive trending urbanization rates in the last four decades, with at least 60% of people living in cities in every nation listed. When you look at countries that have seen their basketball stock rise in the past two decades they have three factors in common:
The development of youth basketball in the States is pretty linear: High School to the NCAA to the NBA, with competition getting heavier and more concentrated as you move up the line. In Europe and South America development takes binary cues from soccer where if you’re good enough you’ll be recruited to an academy and eventually work your way up to the associated professional club. The former Soviet countries had a little bit of a head start when it comes to development infrastructure since basketball academies benefited from the unlimited resources, financial and otherwise, of the USSR.
We talked about this above but the importance of the global urban shift can’t be understated—even though there are some important caveats to consider such as the perceived feebleness of teams from countries with huge urban populations like China, Japan, and Mexico. In a brutal reality that I realized somewhere in my early teens, basketball is a game for tall and graceful men, and being one or the other is almost never enough. When you look at the rosters for Japan (34th in the FIBA rankings), and Mexico (30th) their average height is a full two inches shorter than the Americans, and three inches shorter than the Spanish roster. When combined with the level of competition faced by those two powerhouses and the relatively marginal brand faced by Mexico and Japan, two inches might as well be a full foot.
China presents a different study: they’re ranked 10th in the FIBA rankings but are miles behind the top five teams in terms of talent level even given their rapid urbanization and towering average height of 6’8”. Their middling performance in this year’s Olympics actually bears out the last factor that affects a national team’s performance: latency.
Children aren’t very good at basketball. The hoop is 10 feet tall when you’re 6 years old just like it is when you’re 30 and if you’ve ever seen a 2nd grader trying to shoot a jump shot it takes every ounce of strength in his or her body just to get it above the rim. The point of course is that it takes time for an entire nation to jump from, say, 9th place in the 1992 Olympics to Beijing silver medalist in 16 years, as Spain did. Lithuania and Serbia didn’t have to wait for their national team to compete as the initial latency period for their basketball generations already happened in, like, the 50s when the Supreme Soviet took 6 year olds and had them play basketball twelve hours a day. Spain’s status as non-American favorite 20 years after the Barcelona Games with a roster filled with excellent players in their late twenties and early thirties is no coincidence, it simply took that long for basketball obsessed kids to become fantastically talented adults.
China, a country that has all the requisite ingredients to match or surpass a team like Spain, seems to be only a few years away from the end of their initial waiting period.