Friday, September 22, 2006

America -- Slower, Lower, Weaker

In what is likely to be one of the least-noticed sports stories in the US today, our women's basketball team lost in the semifinals at the world championships. This after winning the last two championships, with 26 consecutive wins in the event.

From what I have been able to ascertain, the pattern of women's basketball success at the highest levels of international competition has been somewhat similar to that in women’s soccer, softball, and ice hockey. While the details are different in each sport owing to historical and cultural patterns, the US dominated first out of the gate, probably because of the huge influence of Title IX, the US law that equalized, among other things, resources devoted to men's and women's intercollegiate athletics. China and Sweden have also been very successful, in the first case because of the usual fanatical communist devotion to international sports success and in the second because of aggressive legal efforts to achieve male/female equality. But as time goes on, other nations catch up.

And “other nations catching up” is an increasing part of the international sports scene in areas where the US used to do much better. The US has never been much of a presence in many sports like soccer, but has always been a dominant force in basketball, tennis, and (since it was open to professionals) ice hockey. For the inaugural World Baseball Classic, it was taken for granted that the US had the world’s best baseball players, but competition on the field showed otherwise.

But the news is now full of US weakness on the global sports scene. The Ryder Cup begins today, and the US is coming off a severe whipping in 2004 in the midst of about a decade of European dominance of that event. At Wimbledon this year, there was not a single American in the quarterfinals of either the gentlemen’s or ladies’ singles. At the US Open, Andy Roddick was the only American in the semifinals on either the men's or women's side. Our men's basketball team managed only a bronze at the world championships, our men's soccer team was a gigantic disappointment in the World Cup in Germany, and on and on and on.

So what is going on? Some research (e.g., Andrew B. Bernard and Meghan R. Busse, “Who wins the Olympic Games: economic resources and medal totals,” Review of Economics and Statistics, February 2004, v. 86, iss. 1, pp. 413-17) suggests unsurprisingly that wealthier nations with more resources to spare win more Olympic medals per capita. Being a communist nation is also a positive predictor, presumably because the leaders of those nations view investment in sports success as a way to propagandize for both foreign and domestic consumption on behalf of their societies. This model takes us pretty far, in that the US dominance (in terms of disproportionate success relative to population) is fading just as many other nations have partly closed the gap in average living standards. And some nations like the Dominican Republic can have vastly disproportionate success by specializing entirely in one sport – baseball in their case, badminton in the case of Indonesia and Denmark. And another consideration is the dramatically increasing American rate of obesity (which is a bigger and bigger, as it were, problem all over the world, but particularly in the US). This would mean that for a given population size the effective population – the population that might actually compete for a place in the highest levels of international competition – is considerably smaller.

In tennis at least the US has been here before. There was a dead period after the Connor/McEnroe/Evert/Navratilova era which was filled on the men's side by Sampras, Agassi, Chang, and Courier and on the women's side by Davenport and the Williams sisters. But this time it feels different – like the rest of the world is more and more pulling its weight in international athletic success in the sports in which the US has historically done much better than our global population share. And so American fans had probably best get used to a leaner sports future.


Blogger Knucklehead said...

Yikes! Please don't lump the USA National team for women's softball into the declining fortunes category.

They lost a few games at the 2000 olympics but carried on to win the gold. They've just recently won their sixth straight World Championship. In fact, with the exception of having a difficult time of things on their way to the 2000 Olympic Gold Medal their international record suggests their dominance has grown over the past 2 decades - they've gotten stronger, now weaker.

They haven't lost a single game in the Pan America Games since 1983. Since going 7-3 in the '82 World Championship (and finishing a mere fourth) they have lost precisely one game and compiled a rather astonishing 54-1 record in World Championship play. Losing the World Cup to Japan in inaugural series in '05 (in the championship game) was considered and a nearly unfathomable upset.

They avenged that loss in the '06 Cup where they outscored their competition 59-3. In the '04 Olympics they outscored the competition 51-1. And there are some quite good international teams. Canada, Australia, Japan, and China generally field excellent teams.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I certainly didn't mean to leave that impression about softball, whose success I'm familiar with. But that the IOC (in what is perhaps a spasm of anti-Americanism) has dropped it from the Olympics at least for now will probably make it less interesting to other countries.

I do think there is some consistency in who succeeds in new women's sports first - the US, Scandinavia, China typically.

12:47 PM  

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