Here’s the number of times a basketball team won an Olympic gold medal in front of their home country: Five.
Since 1936, that’s it. The first came in 1980, a famously boycotted Olympics (by 65 countries!!), where the Soviet Union took the women’s gold medal after defeating Bulgaria in Moscow. In 1984, the United States men’s and women’s teams both won gold in the Los Angeles-based games. The men’s team was famously led by a dude named Michael Jordan, who had just been drafted No. 3 by the Chicago Bulls several weeks earlier. The women were led by Cheryl Miller en route to their first gold medal. In 1996, both Team USA squads did it again, this time in Atlanta. Among those leading the way for the programs: Lisa Leslie, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and current Team USA head coach Dawn Staley. The ‘96 women’s team, in particular, is responsible for much of what we see today.
Japan, heavy underdogs heading into their gold medal match-up with the current incarnation of Team USA, would add to the list if they could do it in Tokyo. Japan’s run in the present has been fairly surprising. Looking back at history, it’s also the first of its kind.
When women were allowed to play basketball beginning in 1976, Japan — then already having finished second in the 1975 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup — took fifth place in the first Olympics. But they didn’t qualify again until 1996, then 2004, and most recently 2016 — finishing seventh, tenth, and eighth, respectively — before qualifying for the 2020 games as the host. By reaching the final, they’ve already guaranteed their first Olympic medal in basketball, but their run this year has gone underappreciated, considering the strength of the field in the tournament they’ve had to navigate through.
Japan entered the Olympics as the FIBA ranked 10th best club in the world, placing them in the lower half of the teams in the tournament. They were even seeded in Pot 3 (out of four) of the draw with No. 8 Serbia and No. 9 China prior to making the groups. In Japan’s group was World No. 1 USA, No. 5 France, and No. 17 Nigeria. Japan immediately opened play with a message in their home country, upsetting 2012 silver medalist France 74-70. They lost to the United States 86-69 three days later, and with France having blown out Nigeria 87-62, Japan needed a victory to ensure qualification into the next round and to control their destiny. And to close group play, they negated Nigeria with a 102-83 win, moving them onto the knockout stage.
Japan finished fifth in the Olympic standings following group play and was matched up with fourth-place and World No. 6 Belgium, who was in their first Olympic quarterfinal. Belgium entered as a slight favorite, but Machida Rui wasn’t trying to hear any of that shit.
The 86-85 victory placed them in a rematch with France. It’s difficult to beat teams twice in a narrow span, especially when they’re ranked higher, but coaches from high school to the pros will tell you, those numbers next to your name won’t mean much during actual games. Japan proved that and more, not only defeating France but, as NBC Sports put it, kept their Cinderella run going, clapping France 87-71 in the semis. (Ok, I added that last part.) France led 22-14 after one quarter, and it looked like vengeance would be fulfilled until Japan outscored them 54-28 over the next two quarters.
Team USA, who is 5-0, hasn’t had a ton of problems navigating through their Olympic experience, and their point differential is a tournament-best +81. Japan’s done the improbable so far, going 4-1 and defeating two of the world’s best on their road to the gold medal game, including the No. 5 squad twice. USA’s a juggernaut aiming for a seventh straight gold and their ninth in total during 12 years of women’s basketball in the Olympics. It’ll be a steep climb for Japan, but given all they’ve done already, who’s to say, in their home, that they couldn’t somehow get this done? This is their moment, too.