LONDON – Dominance doesn't always wear cleats and knee-high socks, and yet America's fascination with a female champion goes only as far as Twitter wars and "Dancing With the Stars." In a basketball country, the most beloved girls play on a soccer team.
On Thursday, just before the U.S. women's soccer team won another gold medal, the U.S. women's basketball team won its 40th straight Olympic game, beating its only rival, Australia, by 13 points in the best game Australia can play. The U.S. found a way to stop a 6-foot-8 center who has dunked in these Olympics. And it broke the Aussies with a ferocious zone defense. On Saturday, Team USA plays for its fifth straight gold medal. It would be an enormous shock to see the team lose.
[ Photos: U.S. women's basketball team ]
Yet nobody much cared. Only a handful of American journalists came to the game. The questions were brief. The players weren't in demand. It was nothing like a U.S. women's soccer game, where the flood of television cameras and flashbulbs and tape recorders never seems to end.
After the game, U.S. coach Geno Auriemma clenched his jaw. This disparity between the soccer and basketball teams gnaws at him.
"I have a lot of respect for what they've done and how they've done it and the perpetual drama that seems to surround every one of their tournaments, you know?" Auriemma said of the women's soccer team as he walked down a corridor of the North Greenwich Arena. "I guess that's what people like, and the fact that there is very little drama involved with our games."
Then he chuckled.
"I'm sure if we were to lose a game we would become way more famous than we are now," he said.
This is the problem. The U.S. women don't lose. They don't come close. In 2006 they lost in the FIBA world championships in Brazil, and the team's current point guard, Sue Bird, talked about the sickness she felt that day. They haven't fallen again. Rarely are they even tested.
Auriemma is right. For his team to matter, it does have to lose, because America doesn't much care about the winning.
"I get a lot of questions – and I hate it: Are we bad for the Olympics because we are winning by so much?" Auriemma said. "So there is something to be said that we can kind of embrace that it's been going on for 20 years now – since 1992. But you know how you can take things for granted.
"You see it every day, you hear about it all the time, and after a while you say, 'Yeah, they do it all the time. Yeah, they're the best in the world. They're good.'"
The women's basketball players have long known they are invisible here. Some will say it baffles them, but mostly they bite their lips, drop their eyes, and mumble clichés about needing to continue to win. The closest anyone has come to genuinely complaining about this was center Tina Charles, who said: "Oh yeah, I think women's basketball doesn't get the respect it should. We are on our way to our fifth gold medal, and yet we don't get respect."
"Maybe one day this will change," she added.
That time is not likely to be soon. On Thursday, the American women moved slightly on the same Twitter that booms the latest of Hope Solo's explosions and makes an instant star of Alex Morgan. Australia was beating them. The U.S. seemed unable to handle Australia's towering center, Liz Cambage. By halftime, Cambage had 19 points, and Australia was shooting over 60 percent.
But then the Americans caught up and pulled away. Charles and others surrounded Cambage, preventing her from posting up next to the basket. It was a brilliant move. Cambage never scored again. Twitter stopped buzzing. The U.S. women were winning again, and it was time to wonder what Solo might be mad about this time.
[ Video: Why the London tabloids love the Olympians ]
And so the most powerful American Olympic team moved quietly to a gold medal game that much of its country won't care about. Auriemma was left walking the corridors of the North Greenwich Arena wondering what more he can do. These have become the Olympics of the woman: For the first time, every country has sent a female athlete. Yet no one wants to talk about the women's team that tramples its competition and wins again and again and again.
He laughed and compared his players to the Soviet Red Army hockey team that was so powerful in the Cold War era.
"That's why it was a miracle when the U.S. beat them," he said.
Then he laughed again.
"So I'm hoping there's no miracle in London," he added.
As long as there isn't, the U.S. women's basketball team will stand on the podium, as it has done for the past four Olympics, watch its flag rise, and wonder why dominance doesn't matter in a basketball country in love with winning.
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