The USA Men’s Basketball team has been tearing its way through the Olympic competition, as expected. But what wasn’t expected was a controversy over their complete domination of Nigeria on Thursday. The United States crushed the Nigerians 156-73 setting a single game scoring record (previously held by Brazil with 138), and moving the Americans to 3-0 overall. In the post-game press conference, coach Mike Krzyzewski was put on the defensive by accusations of “running up” the score. As usual, Coach K was not at a loss for words:
“We didn’t play LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] in the second half, and with Carmelo [Anthony, 37 points in 14 minutes] shooting like that, we benched him,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t take any fast breaks in the fourth quarter, and we played all zone. You have to take a shot every 24 seconds, and the shots we took happened to be hit. I take offense to this question because there’s no way in the world that our program in the United States sets out to humiliate anyone.”
So now a coach needs to apologize for having players that can actually hit their shots? Team USA is so overwhelmingly favored to win the gold in basketball that the press is looking for anything that even remotely approaches a unique story. Coach K gave the right answer, but this won’t prevent the sports pundits from second-guessing his motives. Benching your three high-scorers and taking mostly three-point shots is no strategy for running up the score. As Coach pointed out, Team USA had the embarrassing (at least for journalists) problem of sinking their long shots (the three-point line is more than 1.5 feet shorter in Olympic ball than it is in the NBA). I, for one, am glad to see Coach K standing his ground in the face of backhanded questions from the press, especially in light of the recent scandal in Olympic badminton.
The Chinese badminton doubles team—along with teams from South Korea and Indonesia—was ejected from the Games for purportedly playing to lose. It was painfully obvious to spectators and Olympic officials that the teams were not playing to their abilities—the so-called Olympic spirit of “higher, faster, stronger”—in order to exploit a loophole in the round robin tournament. Losing would have given the teams a lower seed in the quarterfinals, which would in turn give them easier opponents. In other words, the teams were playing to win the tournament, but not necessarily every game. I hope you can see the obvious double standard here.
Journalists were appalled by the men’s basketball team when they actually did play to their potential, to the point of benching starters to level the competition, yet were equally agitated by badminton teams that did not. The goal of every Olympian and coach is to win a gold medal, and if the rules are such that a loss might be the path to that goal, then the rules are to blame, not the athletes and coaches. If Olympic officials and journalists truly believe that the “Olympic spirit” is for athletes to play every game to the utmost, why even broach the subject of running up the score? Why should it matter if your best players and their best players are unequally matched? The “spirit of the Olympics” is supposedly to play hard and to play to win. How does taking pity on your opponent figure into “higher, faster, stronger”? How is not taking shots or intentionally missing them when your team is winning any different than purposely missing serves to lose? The Olympic spirit does not condone this sort of behavior from either team. But it does go to show that political correctness—the convenient redefining of terms for the moment—is not just an American phenomenon. It has now found its way into world sports with Olympic proportions. Thankfully, there are still men like Coach K who have the stones to stand up to such nonsense.