This article titled “British basketball team see Olympic medal as realistic target” was written by Owen Gibson, for The Guardian on Monday 15th August 2011 18.36 UTC
Britain’s improving basketball team are targeting a medal at next year’s Olympics as a realistic goal ahead of the first 2012 event to take place at the main Olympic Park in east London.
Following other test events that have demonstrated the value of home advantage – providing unexpected lifts to performances in beach volleyball and badminton, and helping Mark Cavendish to victory in the cycling road race – Team GB’s basketball players believe they will also benefit.
The London Basketball Invitational will run from Tuesday until Sunday in front of 2,600 spectators per session in the 12,000-capacity temporary arena. Great Britain will play Australia, China, Croatia, France and Serbia.
Although it will be the first appearance by a Great Britain team at the Games since 1948, the head coach, Chris Finch, said the team – granted a wildcard place by the international federation only after meeting performance targets – could qualify from their group and be competitive next summer.
“We’ve got a good mix. We’ve got some high-level guys and we’ve got some good young guys and we need to find out what they can do,” he said ahead of Tuesday night’s game against France.
Team GB have qualified for EuroBasket in Lithuania this year and Finch said progress had been rapid since the home nations put aside factional differences to try to establish a British team in 2006 to target the London Games.
“We put it on a professional footing, which it wasn’t always before. Now we’re stepping up another level consistently and we’ll have to be good at that level too,” said the Florida-born Finch, who has been at the helm of the British men’s programme since its relaunch in 2006.
“At EuroBasket we want a better performance than in 2009, when we were a bit green. Over the Olympic summer success would be getting beyond the knockout rounds. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility we will be challenging for a medal.”
The captain, Drew Sullivan, went further: “Our goal is to try and win it. A lot of people will say that’s a bit brash. But we’ve worked so hard to get here that there’s no point in just being here. We’ve watched enough basketball to know that when a team gets their home nation behind them and they’re playing well, there’s a very good chance they can be successful in any tournament.”
Joel Freeland, who like several of his teammates plays his basketball abroad (in Malaga) said the venue was “incredible” and would inspire the team next summer.
“Next year, when we get a full crowd here it’s going to be a great feeling with the home fans, friends and family.”
He said the set up around the squad had “changed completely” since 2006. “The access we have to better things, physios, doctors, even the way we travel around. Now we are staying in our own rooms. It’s a lot more professional now.”
Luol Deng, the best-known Team GB player who plays for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, will join up with the team this week. “It’s always a bonus when your best player is also the most unselfish, the hardest working and a really good leader. He makes other players better,” Finch said.
The Greenwich-born Dan Clark, who moved to Spain at 14 and now plays for Estudiantes in Madrid, said competition for places in the squad was fierce: “We want to win as many games as possible and put on a good show so that people look forward to basketball next year.” The £42m temporary venue will host basketball until the quarter-finals, when the sport will transfer to the larger O2 Arena (renamed the North Greenwich Arena for the duration of the Games) and it will be reconfigured to host the handball finals.
The contractors that provided the white external structure are in talks with the Brazilian organisers of the 2016 Games to reuse it there, while the temporary seats will be recycled.
But while there is evidence of steady progress in the elite game, the numbers playing the game at grassroots level has not increased. Sport England docked Basketball England £1.2m in funding for not hitting its targets.
Finch said the Olympics represented a “huge opportunity” for the sport. “What we need to do is shore up our development structures. We have it in patches but we need more consistency throughout the country and to invest in coaching in particular.”
The BMX track, which is next to the basketball arena, will also be tested this weekend for the first time. Ticket holders will be bussed into the Park, which remains largely a building site despite the major venues being finished.
David Luckes, the head of sport competition for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, said a busy weekend of test events – including beach volleyball, open water swimming and badminton as well as the cycling road race – had been well received by competitors, spectators and administrators.
It is understood that following criticism from motorists in the wake of road closures to facilitate the road race, Locog and Transport for London will investigate whether roads can be opened up more quickly afterwards. It will also try to ensure that stewards are better briefed.
Following the test event, seen as a big success in terms of the turnout and atmosphere, it is expected to hold talks with the National Trust to allow more spectators access to Box Hill. On Sunday, it was limited to 3,400.
“We recognise that putting on a 140km race, starting and finishing in central London, will always create a few challenges and that is something we will sit down with all the various parties and review as we move forward,” Luckes said.
“But it was really encouraging to see how the crowds of people through Leatherhead, Esher, Kingston were thronging the route three or four deep. That is testament to the fact this is something that has captured the imagination.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010