The United States men’s Olympic basketball team is the most dominant force in Olympic history. They have qualified for every Olympics and have won 18 medals, including 15 gold medals, and have never missed the podium. Basketball has evolved over the years, but the USA basketball team has been a constant throughout the 85 years of Olympic basketball. While the rest of the world is catching up with the United States in international tournaments, the Olympic odds still have them as the clear favorite to win the gold. Let’s take a look at the sustained history of success for the U.S. and the three years of “disappointment” when they did not win the gold medal.
Basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936 at the Berlin games, 21 teams competed in the tournament, and the creator of basketball, James Naismith, was present at most of the games and awarded the medals. The IOC and the International Basketball Federation experimented with outdoor basketball, lawn, and dirt tennis courts were used for the tournament. This caused significant issues as the weather was terrible, especially in the finals. The USA faced Canada in the finals, and they played outdoors in a torrential downpour. The U.S. won their first gold medal by a score of 19-8.
After a hiatus due to World War II, the Olympics returned in 1948, with the United Kingdom hosting the event. Thankfully the basketball tournament returned indoors and was played in the Harringay Arena in London. The United States dominated their five group stage games, winning all of them and finished with a +158 point differential. They continued their dominance in the knockout stage, beating Uruguay, Mexico, and France, outscoring them 199-89.
The 1952 Olympics in Finland was another tournament won by the United States, but the games were not the blowouts they were in past Olympics. Argentina faced the U.S. in the semi-finals, and the defending champs won 85-76. While the finals against the Soviets were not high-scoring, the USA emerged victorious 36-25.
Melbourne was the host of the 1956 Olympics. Only 15 teams entered the tournament, but the result was the same, the United States won gold. Poor Uruguay had to face the United States in the semi-finals. They were destroyed 101-38. The gold medal match was a rematch of the previous Olympics. The USA beat the Soviet Union again 89-55, Uruguay did win the bronze medal.
Sixteen teams were split into four groups in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. America continued its dominance on the court and in the betting lines. Instead of a knockout stage, the group stage winners moved into a championship group. The United States won all three championship round games, with a point differential of +82, the Soviet Union placed second, and Brazil placed third.
Japan hosted the sixth Olympic Basketball Tournament in 1964. The same three teams who won a medal in 1960 placed in the same order in 1964. The tournament returned to the championship bracket, with the U.S. beating the Soviet Union 73-59 for the gold medal.
Yugoslavia emerged as a championship contender in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Beating the Soviet Union in the semi-finals, they faced the United States in the finals but lost 65-50. The Soviets beat Brazil to get the bronze medal.
For the first time ever, the United States did not win a gold medal in basketball. West Germany hosted the 1972 tournament, and everything seemed to go according to plan. The USA went undefeated in the group stage, and they beat Italy to advance to the finals. The United States lost in the finals to the Soviet Union in a heartbreaking fashion, falling short by one point in a 51-50 defeat. Not only was this the first American loss in the finals, but this was also the first time the U.S. had lost any Olympic game.
With revenge on their mind, the U.S. came to play in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. They went undefeated in the group stage and faced Canada in the semi-finals. After beating their neighbor 95-77, the U.S. took on Yugoslavia and reclaimed their gold medal by the score of 95-74.
Although the United States would have had another dominant performance, they did not participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S. led a boycott of the Soviet Olympics after a USSR invasion of Afghanistan, only 12 teams competed in the men’s tournament, and Yugoslavia won the gold medal.
America was the host of the 1984 Olympics, the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics in response to the 1980 boycott, but they were replaced with West Germany. The U.S. returned to the top of the podium by cruising through the group stage and beating West Germany, Canada, and Spain to claim their ninth gold medal. This team featured North Carolina guard Michael Jordan.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States were present for the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea. The two favorites matched up in the semi-finals, where the Soviets shocked the U.S. again with a score of 82-76. The Americans faced Australia in the bronze medal match, and they easily won 78-49.
Olympic basketball would never be the same again. In 1989 the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) voted to allow NBA players to play in the Olympics. Up until 1992, amateurs, mostly college players, were allowed to play. With this ruling, the “Dream Team” was formed for the 1992 Olympics, and Team USA put on a show unlike anything seen before or since. In the group stage, the U.S. won every game and finished with a point differential of +229. They continued their dominance through the knockout stage, culminating with a 117-85 win over Croatia for the gold medal.
The Olympic Games returned to the United States in 1996, and the United States returned to the top of the podium for the 11th time. Not as famed as the ‘92 Dream Team, the ‘96 team was just as dominant. They did not lose a game on their way to the finals against Yugoslavia. Featuring a young Shaq and Penny Hardaway and some Dream Team members like Charles Barkley and John Stockton, the USA handily defeated Yugoslavia 95-69.
The first Olympics of the new millennium would end like most of the 20th century, with the United States winning gold in basketball. Some new additions to the team were Ray Allen, Vince Carter, and Kevin Garnett, and they continued the U.S. legacy of dominance. The knockout rounds were not as decisive as the past years, including an 85-83 scare against Lithuania in the semi-finals. But the United States kept it together and advanced to the finals, where they beat France 85-75 for their twelfth golf medal.
While the 1988 team finished with bronze, the 2004 Olympics in Greece is the biggest disappointment in Team USA’s international basketball history. With LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and many other NBA All-Stars, Team USA lost to Argentina in the semi-finals. Argentina did win the gold medal, and the U.S. managed to get bronze, but this was seen as a disaster. With a team full of NBA stars, there is no reason for the United States to lose.
2008 was a redemption year for the U.S as the Olympics were held in Beijing. Kobe Bryant joined the squad, along with an older James, Wade, and Anthony. The 2008 team is arguably the best Olympic team in history, and yes, better than the Dream Team. Their dominance in the 2008 tournament was reminiscent of the ‘92 Olympics. They were able to get redemption, beating Argentina in the semi-finals and beating a tough Spain team 118-107 for the gold medal.
The 2012 Olympics were held in London, and the U.S. continued its dominance in basketball. They had a similar trail to reaching another gold medal. They beat Argentina 109-83 in the semi-finals and won against Spain 107-100 in the finals. Argentina and Spain had emerged with an NBA all-star team of their own, but it still was not enough to upset them in the basketball odds.
Their 15th and most recent title was in 2016 at the Rio Olympics. The United States beat their top rivals Argentina and Span before reaching the finals. A new opponent met them in the finals, Serbia, Team USA took care of them easily, winning 96-66.
As the United States geared up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, they played a few exhibition games, and things did not go according to plan. The U.S. lost to Nigeria and Australia in their first two exhibitions, sending fans and media into a panic, giving everyone flashbacks to 2004. They bounced back, though, beating Argentina and Spain before heading off to Japan. But there was still some concern, as some top players are not on the 2020 squad. So they will be leaning on top stars like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Draymond Green. Oddsmakers still like them, though, and Team USA remains the favorite in the BetUs sportsbook to win gold.
No one has been as dominant as the United States men’s basketball team in any sport. They have won a medal in every Olympic Games they have competed in and a record 15 gold medals. Basketball has evolved over the years, but the remaining constant is Team USA standing atop the podium for the Olympic tournament. With the addition of NBA players to the Olympics, the U.S. has become even more dominant. Still, we are seeing a shift where international teams are becoming more competitive with the NBA All-Star team the United States throws out there. Despite the rough start, it seems like the 2020 Olympics will have the same outcome. The U.S. will win its 16th gold medal.