Do some Olympic sports have too many teams?

Aug 4 2012 - 4:42pm

LONDON - The U.S. men's basketball team dispatched Nigeria on Thursday by a scant 83 points, the sort of jackboot-to-grape decimation witnessed often in preliminary rounds of Olympic competition and again in post-traumatic stress counseling.

Jim Tooley was on hand. A day later, the USA Basketball CEO characterized it as an anomaly, not a laughably uncompetitive affair suggesting a need to winnow the Olympic field. These were growing pains for a program such as Nigeria's - searing, convulsive but necessary growing pains.

"It still needs to be viewed as a good lesson in that this is what it's going to take to compete on the largest stage," Tooley said. "They've had great progress so far. I hope (Thursday) isn't that discouraging. It's important to focus on the fact that, hey, they're here, they're going to get better."

It can't get much worse than some of the indignities suffered by the bottom feeders across all team sports in the Olympics. Some units, such as Tunisia's men's volleyball team and Cameroon's women's soccer team, don't win and don't come close.

But many - including some participants - argue that excluding them wouldn't be doing anyone any favors.

Doug Bruno, the DePaul women's basketball coach and U.S. assistant, starts his case with one of his former players, Mfon Oduka. She played in the 2004 Games for Nigeria, averaging 21.7 points and 10.2 rebounds for a team that lost all five games.

As it related to Nigerian basketball, Oduka could be there, or her nation would be unaware.

"The reason for more rather than less is because it's in the process of growing a great sport," Bruno said. "It's about the growth of the sport on the continent of Africa, not just the fact that Angola is here and Angola is getting blown out, so therefore let's eliminate them.

"It's about them understanding and seeing what they have to do to grow their sport in their country. ... You know what it is you have to strive to compete with and become."

It's not a pretty journey. Take Tunisia. Please.

In men's basketball, the nation has lost all three of its games with a point differential of minus-74. In men's volleyball, Tunisia also couldn't crack the win column, going 0-3 and winning only 1 of 10 games.

In women's basketball, Angola is 0-4 with a minus-117 point differential. Croatia has won one of its four games and still is saddled with a minus-51. In women's volleyball, Algeria and Serbia have failed to win in a combined eight matches, taking just 4 of 28 games between them.

The three last-place teams in the women's soccer groups combined for an 0-8-1 record and were outscored by a combined 24-2. Cameroon was one of those teams. Before the games, midfielder Francoise Bella said participating "will give so many openings to women's football in Cameroon" that they wished to show "what we can achieve."

What they could achieve: They went winless in three tries and got outscored 11-1. But they weren't happy about it either. That may be the only point they managed to secure.

"We came here to win games and score points and we haven't managed to do that, so the fact that we have scored a goal doesn't really count for much," forward Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene told reporters after scoring that lone goal.

"It has shown us that we are not on the same level as everyone else, so we need to go back and work harder."

Croatia women's basketball coach Stipe Bralic deemed an 81-56 defeat to the U.S. to be "excellent" because "we were close for more than 30 minutes."

Bruno uses another word to describe these outings: necessary.

"I don't want to be condescending in my remarks, but at the same time, we need these games to hone what we don't get to in training," Bruno said. "The teams we're going to have to beat in the end here, they train for years and they're together for years. ... It gives us the opportunity to have, if you will, some semblance of training. I'd hate to think we had to go play for medal play right now. We're not ready yet."

They and their male counterparts are certainly more ready than most. Tooley considers Nigeria's berths in the 2006 world championships and these Olympics as auspicious signs. And he hopes the field expands, so lessons like Thursday's can be offered to even more countries aspiring to be less savagely thrashed in the future.

"I'm sure Nigeria is going to have some takeaways from that game that hopefully will improve their federation a little bit," Tooley said. "You've got to have those countries involved, playing against the best, to have a chance at it."

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