Tokyo Olympics: US, China no longer have air of invincibility – and that's good

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Iran players Mohammadsina Vahedi (left) and Miichael Rostampour surround the United States' Jayson Tatum during the men's basketball match at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Iran players Mohammadsina Vahedi (left) and Miichael Rostampour surround the United States' Jayson Tatum during the men's basketball match at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Reporting from Tokyo

TOKYO — Right before the Angola basketball team took on their United States counterparts at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, their head coach Victorino Cunha told his players that they could not beat the "Dream Team" which contained greats such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. 

The target was not to lose more than 45 points. They eventually lost by 68 points, yet the Angolan players were eagerly posing for photos with the US basketball stars after the game. To them, it was less of the competition than a brush with their sporting idols.

Flash forward to Wednesday (28 July) at the Saitama Super Arena, and the US team that contain top-class players like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker were facing another underdog team in Iran. 

The 120-66 scoreline suggested another lopsided thrashing, yet the Iranians could hold their heads high as they contested as hard as they could for the entire game, harassing the Americans in defence and running their offensive sets with diligence to find open shots.

Of course, the US players' superior skills and physiques were key in their big win, yet Iran showed little fear in challenging basketball's powerhouse nation. Perhaps they were emboldened by the France team scoring an upset 83-76 win over the US on Sunday, and believed that the US players were merely humans, not legends.

“They are better individually, but they can be beaten as a team,” said Evan Fournier, the French player who plays for the Boston Celtics in America's elite National Basketball Association

No isolated occurrence

Yet, this has not been an isolated occurrence where an occasional underdog finds the rare courage to do the impossible. 

In every sport at this Olympics, unfancied athletes are confidently tackling the US and China, the two countries which have dominated medal tables of recent Games. They are certainly not at the Games merely for just photo opportunities.

And while the US and China athletes may still prevail in many of these competitions, there have been glorious upsets that have livened up this Games. 

Besides France's stirring win over the US basketball team, Japan's duo Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito also ended China's dominance in every table tennis competition since 2008 with a come-from-behind win over Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen in the mixed doubles final. 

Elsewhere, Sweden's women's football team pummelled their US counterparts 3-0, inflicting the US their first loss since January 2019. And British divers Tom Daley and Matty Lee ended China's 21-year grip on the men's synchronised 10m platform event, edging out Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen for the precious gold.

While some fans may lament the fall of their idols, this trend can only be a good thing for Olympics, for the athletes who succeeded against the odds, and even for the US and China.

Japanese mixed doubles duo Mima Ito (left) and Jun Mizutani screaming in joy after winning the gold medal over China's Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen at the Tokyo Olympics.
Japanese mixed doubles duo Mima Ito (left) and Jun Mizutani screaming in joy after winning the gold medal over China's Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen at the Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

Turning competition to procession with their dominance

The dominance of the two counties is not inherently a bad thing for Olympic sports. The US, with its strong sporting culture and seemingly limitless financial resources, has consistently pushed the limits of the human's physical capability since the modern Games started in 1896.

China – and the Soviet Union before its dissolution – also proved that sporting excellence can be achieved via state-funded support, with systematic grooming of their athletes from a young age. 

These countries may have been aiming for medal-table supremacy, but they have nonetheless consistently produced unforgettable sporting moments, inspired millions of sports fans, and sowed the seeds of the Olympic dreams of countless young athletes. 

Yet, sometimes their dominance in certain sports threatens to turn competition into procession. When their opponents are overwhelmed in loss after lopsided loss, it could lead to them believing they can never beat these sporting superpowers, and so they will not even try.

Such defeatists attitude creates even more dominance for the two countries, and they have essentially cruised on their superiority in sports such as basketball (the US) and table tennis (China).

Default attitude should not be minimising losses

Slowly, though, the underdogs are changing those negative mindsets. Whether it is through smarter tactics or better management of their mental states, they have been chipping away at the dominance of the US and China in the past decade.

And when minnows start finding bits of success, others would start copying their methods. When more success ensues, the aura of invincibility among the US and Chinese athletes starts to fade - leading up to the numerous surprises at this Olympics.

Obviously this is a good thing to the many other countries fielding gold-chasing athletes. Any possibility of success will be eagerly grabbed onto by them, and competition becomes more unpredictable and thrilling.

Take the Japanese mixed doubles duo's golden triumph. They were down two sets to their Chinese rivals, yet refused to concede the match, battling all the way to eventually eke out the monumental triumph.

"We've lost to China at the Olympic Games and at world championships numerous times, but we were able to take a revenge on all that at the Tokyo Olympics," Mizutani told reporters.

And that should be the default attitude when tackling the giants, not minimising losses or taking photos for memory. And deep down, the US and Chinese athletes would love to be challenged too; it makes them motivated to train harder to stay at the top.

The Olympics – as with any major competition – are also richer for such a level playing field. Having every athlete feeling he or she has a shot at gold makes the Games' amended motto, "Faster, Higher, Stronger - Together", sound less hollow.

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