This weekend, the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team is widely favored to capture a gold medal. Favored to, but not guaranteed to.
The Americans struggled against Argentina on Monday (up just a point at the half) and edged Lithuania by just five points last week. This team can be defeated. And that’s quite different from the situation two decades ago.
In his excellent new book, The Dream Team, Jack McCallum tells the story of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. It was the first Olympics that allowed American professional players to take part. (Other athletes had been semi-professionals for many years. Recall that the same core of Soviet hockey players showed up every four years.)
The roster of NBA greats made the ’92 Olympics more of a coronation than a competition. The Dream Team rolled to a series of double-digit victories. Other players, knowing they were outclassed, often sought out the Dream Teamers’ autographs before taking the court.
The competition seemed unfair at the time. All it seemed to do was highlight just how much better the best American basketball players were than the best players from everywhere else. However, such open competition actually helped the rest of the world to raise its game.
“It was like an impossible mission to play them,” one of the ’92 Spanish players, now a coach for his country, told McCallum. “But it was a good mission. Everyone in basketball was waiting for this because players, if they are serious, want to play against the best no matter what the result. Only by playing the best can you become the best.”
And many of today’s NBA stars—including foreigners Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and Steve Nash—were inspired to play hoops while watching the Dream Team.
And the rest of the world caught up quite quickly, McCallum writes. Within a decade American pros were losing in international competition. The 2004 U.S. Olympic team even settled for bronze.
Economics works the same way. Competition tends to make everyone better. And no company or country can maintain an edge indefinitely. Free trade and open competition help poorer countries focus on things they can do well and raise their living standards. And that’s exactly what’s been happening, under American leadership, for several decades.
In his book The World America Made, Robert Kagan writes that in the 1950s, there were about 1 billion rich people and 5 billion poor. “By the beginning of the twenty-first century, four billion of those poor have begun climbing out of poverty,” he writes. “This period of global prosperity has benefited an enormous number of the world’s poor and produced rising economic powers like China, Brazil, Turkey, India, and South Africa in parts of the world that had once known mostly poverty.” In other words, the rest of the world is catching up to us economically, and that’s improving lives of billions of people.