LONDON (Olympics) – The London 2012 Olympic Basketball Tournament captivated the attention of billions worldwide. The tournament reached its climax last Sunday with the exciting and close Men’s Final between the reigning Olympic and FIBA World Champions United States and two-time European champions Spain.
In a wide-ranging interview, FIBA Secretary General and IOC member Patrick Baumann talked about the future of the Olympics, the FIBA Basketball World Cup and the NBA.
FIBA: The Olympic Basketball Tournament has come to a close. What are your thoughts on what you saw on the court?
Baumann: I think it's been a good tournament both for the men and the women. Certainly the technical level in the men's tournament is even better than in Beijing. I think that's visible for everyone. There have been great games and it wasn't clear who next to the USA would go to the Final.
No one could have guessed for sure it would be the remake of the Final in Beijing nor that the Final would again be so competitive. We have to give credit to both the USA and Spain who delivered a great battle on the court, but also to Russia and Argentina who battled until the last seconds to decide the Bronze Medal Game.
Another highlight of course was Australia’s young Liz Cambage getting the first dunk ever in the women’s tournament. She will be a talent that we will see for many more events to come. And the tremendous progress shown by Turkey’s women's team presents us with promising prospects for the 2014 World Championship for Women to be held in their country.
Finally, I believe that we have to praise the efforts of the GB teams, both men and women. FIBA’s decision to integrate them automatically into the Games was well deserved and I hope they will keep up with the work for the next quadrennium.
FIBA: Are there any areas where you would like to see some improvement?
Baumann: Yes, we need to be constantly attentive that basketball does not become a fight for the second place both in the men and women’s tournaments. The USA can be very proud of their achievements on the court. Big-name stars have played as a team and are proud to represent their country. But they are fortunate to have a very strong system in the US that provides them with almost unlimited talents. This is not the case elsewhere.
FIBA needs to encourage more competitiveness and more depth in countries being able to reach the podium. The presence of the French women's team on it in London is a good signal, as is the medal won by the Russian men’s team. The presence of two African teams in the tournament, although their levels are still too far from the top, was also important, whilst the failure of the Chinese men’s team is very alarming from an Asian perspective.
From a rules perspective, tanking and flopping always remain issues we need to monitor and improve, but I am extremely happy about the strong officiating we had in London, with referees from all continents participating efficiently at each level of the tournament. The three-point line has been extended only recently but there is already a debate whether we should not have immediately moved to the NBA three-point distance.
Finally, we regularly discuss the fact that having 12 teams is not ideal for a team sport. Two groups of six teams, five games in the Preliminary Round – it makes the tournament very long. We support the principle of universality at the Olympics, but the consequence is that we don't necessarily have the best teams competing. We've requested twice to have 16 teams. The IOC has rejected this both times for quota reasons, which is frustrating from our perspective. More countries want to qualify, but it is extremely difficult.
FIBA: Can you talk about trying to find the right balance between the Olympics and the FIBA Basketball World Cup?
Baumann: There are heated discussions about which is the prime event between the FIBA Basketball World Cup and the Olympic Basketball Tournament. It's not about comparing the two. They have different values and we benefit from both. Certainly in terms of the sport aspect, the FIBA Basketball World Cup is more intense because the best teams are really there. But the Olympics represent something much bigger with its values and the fact that winning an Olympic medal is probably the dream of a lifetime for every athlete. We can’t refuse that.
On the other hand, we need to find a way to raise the profile of the World Cup to another level as basketball has grown very strongly worldwide since the 1992 Olympics with the help of the NBA and other leagues along with the hard work of FIBA’s National Federations. Now basketball is extremely global. So we're looking at 'how do we deal with the next 20 years?' This discussion started at our last Congress in 2010 in Turkey.
Within that context, getting 16 teams at the Olympics or having U23 players – as suggested by David Stern – it's all part of the general discussion we're having within the basketball family (and therefore also with the NBA). These ideas are on the table to reflect what is best for basketball in the next 20 years. There may be different opinions between the stakeholders, but we're not afraid to put ideas on the table.
FIBA: How can you make the FIBA Basketball World Cup stand out and get the audience it deserves?
Baumann: We are absolutely convinced that basketball can grow even more and we know for a fact that the FIBA Basketball World Cup has untapped potential for growth. So, to start with, this is why we propose to play our flagship event in 2019 instead of 2018 to move it out of the FIFA World Cup year. At the same time, it becomes the main qualifier for the Olympic Games in 2020.
Finally, it should no longer be about a two-week event, but about a two-year story of qualifications played all over the world, with a climax during the final two weeks.
FIBA: The NBA raised concerns for its players who play at the Olympics. What are your thoughts on this?
Baumann: The NBA has a general concern, as do all clubs and leagues, about the use of athletes during the summer. Every summer, players are asked to play for their national teams. Certainly from an NBA perspective, there's the wear and tear factor - 19 days of being in London, plus the preparations...it's pretty long, having started just shortly after the end of the NBA season.
So there's an issue about length. One way to tackle that is by not bringing the older players. That's why the Commissioner (David Stern) has come up with “why not go with U23”, while at the same time promoting younger athletes and also making a difference between the FIBA Basketball World Cup and the Olympic Games. From a FIBA perspective, it’s an interesting approach and we understand the point of view of the NBA and USA Basketball. We know their concerns.
From a global perspective, the progress of the talent in all other countries doesn't go at the same speed or the same pace as the USA. They don't all have a school system like the USA. So the ability for the rest of the world to produce a lot of talent is not the same as the USA. As a result of that, lowering the age to U23 at the Olympics could actually widen the divide between the USA and the rest of the world.
There is also a more general issue of what the Olympic Games represent. The NBA, the IOC and FIBA, we have all earned a lot - not just in financial terms - from professional athletes being at the Olympics since 1992. This is the case with regards to the way basketball has grown, from where we were then to where we are now.
So it would be premature to make changes in the quality of basketball at the Olympics, especially before having maximised the potential of the World Cup. So it's too early to make any changes in the Olympic programme.
To give you a concrete example, I don't think we would have had the investment in basketball in Britain - which is not a basketball country - had it not been for the Olympics. Also, without the Olympics, the amazing work done by Nigeria with its men’s team would have gone unnoticed. The same applies to the popularity of basketball in China.
But there clearly is a need for an overhaul of the FIBA competition structure to keep the NBA players participating internationally for their national teams. The Commissioner has been very clear to us on this and we will have to make difficult but important choices for the future before the end of this year.
Right now, for us (FIBA) it’s still about trying to find a way to serve everybody's purpose in the best way possible. So we will recommend changes and there will be discussions between us and the IOC and between us and the NBA and our basketball family as we are already having.
FIBA: Will you be making proposals for change to the Olympic Basketball Tournament and programme for 2016?
Baumann: We will certainly submit two proposals. The first is we want to move from 12 to 16 teams. As a consequence of that we would be able to promote the game in four more countries and reduce the length of the competition.
The second proposal would be to introduce 3x3 in the Olympics following its successful introduction at the Youth Olympic Games in 2010 in Singapore and the start of our first full 3x3 season this year.
FIBA: How do you justify having both basketball and 3x3 in the Olympics?
Baumann: Well, volleyball has beach volleyball, swimming has synchronised swimming and diving, athletics has A athletes and B athletes, etc. We want 3x3 to be a part of the Olympics. It is an integral part in FIBA’s efforts to grow the pyramid of basketball. At the top, we need to manage the elite and make the changes I have referred to. At the bottom, we need to spread the basketball virus.
We are the number one indoors sport, but we have ambitions also outdoors and beyond the core basketball players. 3x3 helps our base to grow, our sport to become more popular and basketball to be a rejuvenating and innovative driver for change.
FIBA: Can you talk about how crucial it is for FIBA and the NBA to work hand in hand to grow basketball?
Baumann: The NBA and FIBA absolutely need to keep working together. There is no other solution for basketball to grow from where it is now to where it can go next. I'm sure the IOC wants the NBA’s best athletes to keep on playing in the Olympics, we want that too as well as, of course, at the World Cup. And we’ve heard that the players want to come to the Olympics.
Also, the NBA wants to continue to progress globally, to benefit from basketball’s popularity and growth. We need to find the right way to define the structure of our competitions in general - it's about the World Cup, how you qualify for it, how many games the players have to play in the four-year cycle. It's not just about the two weeks of the Olympics. So it's a whole package that we've been working on for a year now. Within that package, the Olympic Games are an important piece.
As I said, we will make some tough decisions at the end of the year about how we strengthen the World Cup, how new countries can climb the ranking and how we ensure the NBA stays within the FIBA basketball family so that have 20 more years of growth coming up at the same speed if not better, because we feel we can do better.