This weekend, the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team is widely favored to capture a gold medal. Favored to, but not guaranteed to.

The Americans struggled against Argentina on Monday (up just a point at the half) and edged Lithuania by just five points last week. This team can be defeated. And that’s quite different from the situation two decades ago.

In his excellent new book, The Dream Team, Jack McCallum tells the story of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. It was the first Olympics that allowed American professional players to take part. (Other athletes had been semi-professionals for many years. Recall that the same core of Soviet hockey players showed up every four years.)

The roster of NBA greats made the ’92 Olympics more of a coronation than a competition. The Dream Team rolled to a series of double-digit victories. Other players, knowing they were outclassed, often sought out the Dream Teamers’ autographs before taking the court.

The competition seemed unfair at the time. All it seemed to do was highlight just how much better the best American basketball players were than the best players from everywhere else. However, such open competition actually helped the rest of the world to raise its game.

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