How Basketball Teams Qualify for the Olympics

Olympic Qualifying Process Has Drawn Criticism for Leaving Out Deserving Teams

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In July of 2012, twelve teams will head to London to compete for Olympic gold in men's basketball. Twelve others will be going for the gold in women's hoops. But in reality, the competition started years ago; simply qualifying to compete in the Olympics is an arduous process that plays out over the course of several years.

Host Country

Generally, the first berth in the Olympic basketball tournament is reserved for the host country. In 2012, that was Great Britain. But the British aren't exactly known as a hoops power. FIBA, basketball's international governing body, asked Great Britain to make substantial improvements in its basketball programs before agreeing to give them a host nation berth in the tournament.

London was awarded the games back in 2005 but was not officially given the berth until March of 2011.

Reigning FIBA World Champions

The reigning FIBA World Champion also gets an automatic slot in the Olympic games. Team USA has that honor for the 2012 games, thanks to Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and the other NBA stars that won gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Turkey.

FIBA Regional Championships

Seven more spots in the Olympic field are distributed based on the results of tournaments held in each of FIBA's five geographic divisions:

  • Two from Europe
  • Two from North and South America
  • One from Africa
  • One from Asia
  • One from "Oceania" - essentially, Australia and New Zealand

Those berths go to the champions - in Europe and the Americas' case, the champions, and runners-up - of tournaments held in each region.

The Olympic Qualifying Tournament

That leaves three unfilled slots. Those are filled by the top three finishers in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which matches up twelve of the lower-tier finishers from the FIBA regional tournaments.

The Olympic Qualifying Tournament includes the third through sixth-place finishers from Eurobasket, the third through fifth from the Americas, the second and third-place teams from Africa and Asia, and the Oceania, tournament runner-up.

Criticisms of the Process

There are some pretty significant problems with the geographic divisions because most of the world's best basketball teams hail from Europe or the Americas. According to FIBA's 2010 rankings of men's national teams, eight of the world's top twelve squads - Spain, Greece, Lithuania, Turkey, Italy, Serbia, Russia, and Germany - are European. Two more come from the Americas - the United States and Argentina - with Puerto Rico and Brazil just outside the top dozen at 15 and 16.

Australia and China are the only representatives from Oceania or Asia in the top twelve. Africa's top team, Angola, rated 13th.

Under the current format, two European squads qualify for the games based after Eurobasket, and four more get invites to the qualifying tournament. But that means the seventh-best European club doesn't even get a shot at the qualifiers.

But according to the FIBA rankings, the seventh-best team from Europe is the eleventh-best team in the world.

Meanwhile, Oceania is guaranteed a spot in the Olympics and another in the qualifying tournament, despite the fact that the entire region has only two teams of note. In 2011, the Oceania "Tournament" that determined an Olympic berth was a best-of-three series between Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand went 0-2 against their rivals, but will still get a chance to qualify for London ahead of a European club that ranks several spots higher on FIBA's list.

Improving the Process

Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated published some suggestions to improve Olympic basketball qualifying and ensure that more of the world's top teams are seen on the biggest stage. First off, he recommends expanding the tournament field to sixteen teams, a change that FIBA has pushed for some time, but Olympic organizers have rejected. He also recommends combining the Oceania and Asia regions for Olympic qualifying.

Olympic Women's Basketball Qualifying

The qualifying process for the women's Olympic basketball tournament is very similar. Automatic berths are given to the host nation and reigning FIBA World Champion (Team USA). But only the champion of each regional FIBA tournament advances - one each from Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. That leaves five slots to be determined by the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women, which will take place in London before the official start of the games.

The qualifying tournament includes the second through fifth-place teams from Europe, the second through fourth from the Americas, the second and third-place teams from Asia and Africa, and the Oceania runner-up.