Basketball at the Summer Olympics

Basketball at the Summer Olympics
Basketball pictogram.svg
Governing bodyFIBA
Events4 (men: 2; women: 2)
  • 1896
  • 1900
  • 1904
  • 1908
  • 1912
  • 1920
Note: demonstration or exhibition sport years indicated in italics

Basketball at the Summer Olympics has been a sport for men consistently since 1936. Prior to its inclusion as a medal sport, basketball was held as a demonstration event in 1904. Women's basketball made its debut in the Summer Olympics in 1976.

The United States is by far the most successful country in Olympic basketball, with United States men's teams having won 15 of 18 tournaments in which they participated, including seven consecutive titles from 1936 through 1968. United States women's teams have won 8 titles out of the 10 tournaments in which they competed, including six in a row from 1996 to 2016. Besides the United States, Argentina is the only nation still in existence who has won either the men's or women's tournament. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and the Unified Team are the countries no longer in existence who have won the tournament. The United States are the defending champions in both men's and women's tournaments.

On June 9, 2017, the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee announced that 3x3 basketball would become an official Olympic sport as of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, for both men and women.[1][2]


Basketball was invented by James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. Within a few decades, the new game became popular throughout the United States as an indoor sport. The popularity spread overseas and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) was organized in 1932 in Geneva, Switzerland.

American dominance

Thanks in part to the effort of Phog Allen[3][4]—a Kansas Jayhawks collegiate coach—the first Olympic basketball tournament was organized in the 1936 Berlin Olympics on outdoor tennis courts. Dr. Naismith presented the medals to the top three teams. According to the Olympic rules of that time, all of the competitors were amateurs. The tournament was held indoors for the first time in 1948. The American team proved its dominance, winning the first seven Olympic tournaments until 1968, without losing a single game. While the Americans were barred from sending a team that contained players from the professional National Basketball Association, they instead sent in college players; teams from some other countries sent in their best players, as some of their players were classified as "amateur" by FIBA, by earning allowances instead of wages.

Munich and after

The U.S. winning streak ended in 1972 in one of the most controversial matches in history, when the Soviet Union beat them in the gold-medal game by one point.

The U.S. team reclaimed the gold medal in 1976, with Yugoslavia, which had beaten the Soviet Union in the semifinal, finishing runner-up for the second time. In 1980, with the Americans' absence due to the boycott, Yugoslavia became the third team to win the title, after beating the Soviets anew in the semifinals and Italy in the final. The Americans regained the title in 1984, by beating Spain in the final, with the Soviets boycotting this time. The Soviets won the gold medal for the second time in 1988, after beating the U.S. team for the second time in the semifinal, and the Yugoslavs in the gold medal game.

Professional era: renewed American dominance

The advent of the state-sponsored "full-time amateur athlete" of the Eastern Bloc countries eroded the ideology of the pure amateur, as it put the self-financed amateurs of the Western countries at a disadvantage. The Soviet Union entered teams of athletes who were all nominally students, soldiers, or working in a profession, but all of whom were in reality paid by the state to play in a well-developed league with modern facilities and train year-round.[5][6] In April 1989, through the leadership of Secretary General Borislav Stanković, FIBA approved the rule that allowed NBA players to compete in international tournaments, including the Olympics. In the 1992 Summer Olympics, the U.S. "Dream Team" won the gold medal with an average winning margin of 44 points per game, and without calling a timeout. By this time, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia no longer existed, but their successor states continued to be among the leading forces. Two newly independent countries of the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, Croatia and Lithuania, won the silver and bronze medals respectively.

The American team repeated its victory in 1996 and 2000, but its performance was not as dominant as in 1992. Since active NBA players have been allowed to compete in the Summer Olympics, the 1996 Games in Atlanta is the only instance where the Olympic host city also had a home NBA team — the Hawks. Yugoslavia was the runner-up in Atlanta, and France in Sydney, with Lithuania winning bronze again on both occasions.

The renewed dominance of the U.S. was interrupted in 2004, when the Americans barely made it to the semifinal, after losing to Puerto Rico and Lithuania in the preliminaries; Argentina defeated them in the semifinals, on their way to a gold medal finish, where they beat Italy in the final, and became the fourth team to win the Olympic title.

The Americans regrouped in 2008, beating the reigning FIBA world champions, Spain, in an intense gold medal game, with the Argentines beating the Lithuanians in the bronze medal game. The Americans and the Spaniards met again in the 2012 gold medal game, with the U.S. again winning, although with the closest winning margin for the American team. The U.S. won again in 2016, defeating the Serbians in the gold medal game, a rematch of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup Final, after eliminating the Spaniards, who settled for bronze.


The first women's tournament was staged in the 1976 Summer Olympics. The Soviet Union won five straight games, becoming the inaugural champion. The next two tournaments followed the six-team round-robin format, with the Soviets defending their title in 1980 amid the U.S.-led boycott, and the U.S. winning in 1984, against the South Koreans, amid the Soviet-led boycott. In 1988, the tournament expanded into eight teams, with the Americans beating Yugoslavia in the gold medal game. In 1992, the Unified Team, consisting of the former Soviet republics, defeated China in the gold medal game. In 1996, the tournament settled into its current 12-team format; the U.S. has swept all of the tournaments since then, winning 48 consecutive games.