I'm not an old guy, and as such, I can't remember many Olympic games. I remember watching some people swimming in Atlanta when I was 5, and have vague memories of people like Marion Jones, Michael Johnson, and Maurice Greene take Olympic gold. But the first Olympics that I really watched and understood was the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
And while many people think I'm going to talk about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, those moments never really hit home for me. My favourite Olympics moment was when the star studded Team USA took on the coastal African country of Angola in the preliminary round of the Basketball tournament.
I'm sure most people don't remember this event, or weren't even awake when it was going on. And I'm sure many people are puzzled as to why I would even mention this game, with it being probably the most unnotable game in the tournament from a United States perspective.
But when you take history into context, this game was actually kind of huge. Angola (until this year) was always the top dog of African Basketball, but globally that might as well be as notable as being the best cricket player in the USA. Angola would regularly get blown out by even the worst teams from other regions, and would regularly serve as a punching bag within their group. In fact, their most notable international basketball moment was probably Charles Barkley's famous quote going into a 116-48 drubbing of Angola in 1992.
The team in 2008 looked no more imposing. Nobody on the roster was taller than 6'8", and everybody played domestically in Angola. They had already been destroyed by the Nowitzki and Kaman led Germany, and their chances of getting to the next round were considered astronomically small. Heading into the game, the coach's goal given during the Pre-Game pep talk was to "Lose by less than 20 points." If a team knows it's defeated before the game, how can it have any chance of winning?
Well, they didn't. Even if Team USA played the worst game of their lives, I doubt Angola could have won. But what I saw on the court that day was a lot of heart from the Angolans. The basketball world had changed a lot since 1992, and players were no longer looking to snap photos of their game with Team USA. The team had come out to compete as hard as they could, and play their game.
And, amazingly, for about 5 minutes, it was a game. Angola was taking advantage of Team USA's big lineup, getting steals, running the break, and hitting corner threes. Team USA has underestimated them and was committing careless mistakes.
Of course, Team USA quickly re-took the lead. But no matter how high the lead got, the Angolans were still there, competing as best they could. Team USA never really went on a huge run, forced to battle for every point they got. In fact, Angola even won the fourth quarter as Team USA let up, getting within two points of their less than 20 point goal.
After the game, the media mostly passed over it, writing it off as the Angolans getting destroyed again, and threw up a couple of highlight reel clips of Angola getting blocked in the post and LeBron James dunking the ball. After all, Team USA had more threatening opponents coming down the line, and no one was too concerned about what happened against Angola.
But Angola had proven themselves that day. Out of all of the Group B teams, which included Spain, Greece, Yao's China, and Germany, Angola had lost to Team USA by the least amount of points. In fact, Team USA would only have closer contests in the semi-final and Gold Medal game that year. To put it in an Angola perspective, they had lost to the Dream Team by 68 points in 1992, 33 Points in 1996, and 34 Points in 2004.
I'm not trying to take anything away from the way Team USA played in that Olympics, as they were totally dominant. And it's hard to say what's in store for Angola in the future, as they may not even qualify for this year's games. But Angola really embodied the true Olympic spirit that night. Sometimes, trying to lose by less than 20 points can be just as meaningful as Olympic gold.
My interest in the Olympics have changed throughout the years. I think it was really when the IOC decided to go to an "every 2 years" format in 1994 that the mystique of the Games began to wear off. How big of a deal was it, really, if we were watching Olympic competition every two years (summer & winter alternating) with World Championships in between? Without the historic 4 year buildup, it was just more games. As such, all my really 'big' moments were the ones prior to 1994.
Even though my sport is and always will be basketball and the 1992 Dream Team stands alone in my mind, the first great Olympic moment I can remember was the 1988 men's volleyball final against the USSR. Keep in mind that in 1988, the cold war that stemmed from the U.S.'s frosty relationship with the USSR was still in full effect. Heck, Rocky Balboa arranged an entire boxing match to reflect this tense affair. So naturally, for better or worse, it was very easy for a young lad like me to settle into an "us vs. them" mentality and every occasion where the U.S. battled against the Soviets was not just a match, but a battle for the outcome of free man, or something.
I barely remember any of the details of the final, just a number of the men involved, some of which became volleyball icons: Karch Kiraly, Steve Timmons, Jeff Stork, and of course, Kiraly's dad who waved an American flag like a maniac for a solid 2 hours. I remembered how they fell behind after losing the first set but then came back to take the next 3. I remember, because of the nature of how volleyball points are scored, that each and every play was like a pitcher's duel in the World Series. Lastly, I remember it most because I was watching it with my family while it was going on and I'm pretty sure I high-fived my mother at some point, which is really weird when you think about it.
I've had many great sporting moments as a fan, but the 1988 men's volleyball team will always be my biggest Olympic moment.
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