On June 28, 2015, Russian women’s basketball team played against Turkey for the fifth place in the Euro-Basket tournament at Budapest. A win would have sent the Russians to another last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in 2016 but they lost to Turkey 66-68 on the buzzer. With the sixth place finish, their dreams of Olympic qualification evaporated in thin air. Besides the United States, Russia is the only nation to win a gold medal in women’s basketball at the Olympic Games. As the former Soviet Union, they won the first two medals at Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980. They boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where USA reigned supreme in both men and women’s events. In Seoul’s 1988 Games, the unified Soviet Union won gold in men’s event and bronze in women’s. The women’s gold in 1992 Barcelona Olympics was also won by Russia as a unified Commonwealth of Independent States. Since then, Americans have won every gold medal in women’s basketball including the 2012 London Olympic Games, where Russian women finished fourth. The Russian women won bronze medals at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 but it never happened that they missed Olympic participation until they lost their chance at the 2016 Rio Games.
With such an illustrious history, the failure to qualify at 2016 Rio Games is a major blow for Russia’s women’s basketball team. The only close comparison is the Russian women missing out the qualifying berth at 2014 World Championships. Since winning the bronze medal at 2008 Beijing Games, Russia’s women basketball team has been on a downward spiral and they have not taken their place on the medal stand at a major international competition. They finished seventh at 2010 world championship but failed to qualify in the next edition of the world championship. Russian women are ranked world no.5 as per FIBA’s latest ranking release but that fails to count, when it comes to the Olympic qualifications. This is because; the Olympic Committee places emphasis on global participation and all regions must get their chances. An example is the 2015 Asia women’s championship that takes place at Wuhan in China. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and India take part in this tournament and the winner will qualify for Rio Games. All the six Asian teams have much lower FIBA rankings than Russia but one of them will go to the Olympics. Same thing is true in Cameroon’s upcoming 2015 Afro-basket tournament that will send one out of 12 African nations to the Olympics. All these countries are far below the FIBA world rankings. The vagaries of the Olympic qualifications process in the 42 sports recently resulted in the Rio berth for the 197th FIFA ranked nation Fiji in men’s football.
Perhaps Russian women’s basketball team has to swallow its pride because everyone must respect the laid-down qualification process. They tried their best during the 2015 Euro-basket Women’s tournament. Russia brought an American player named Epiphanny Prince in their squad and she started playing for Russia after becoming a naturalized citizen in 2010. Formerly from the New York Liberty, Prince played as guard at the Euro-basket and led her team with an average score of 13.8 per game. But in the crunch game against Turkey, that was not enough. Russians led by 3 points with 60 seconds of overtime in the match but that lead was blown away. Prince was the second US-born player in the team since Becky Hammon, who played for Russia in 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics. Until now, USA and Serbia are the only two qualified teams in the women’s basketball at Rio Olympics and 10 berths are still vacant. Russia will rue that they cannot be among those remaining 10.