By Bruce Wigo
BEIJING, China, August 8. ONLINE, you can find a website to gamble on just about anything. Even on women's water polo tournament that begins in Beijing on Monday (if you are in Beijing). The favorite to win the gold, according to the professional odds-makers is the team from the USA. But the professional gamblers don't see much separation between the Americans, Russians, Australians, Italians, Hungarians, Greeks or the Dutch. Looking at the odds across the board, the women's water polo tournament has the makings of an unpredictable and exiting competition.
Still, I think the American women are a good bet. Why? First of all, the USA has the largest and best female, water polo talent pool in the world and this team is physically, mentally and athletically awesome. Secondly, the interscholastic and collegiate system that these athletes passed through is, in many ways, superior to the European, Canadian and Australian club systems for women. The third ace in the USA hand is coach Baker. He has done a great job of moving talent through a pipeline from age groupers to the national team under one system of play. His resume is that of one of the great coaches in the world and he has the experience of two Olympic Games behind him. Finally, the USA women have funding comparable, if not better, than any women's water polo team in the world. As Jeff Ma (the former M.I.T. water polo coach who was the inspiration for book "Bringing Down the House" and the film "21") knows, the only hand to beat four aces is a straight flush. With eight teams playing cards, the odds of another team drawing that hand is remote.
That said, there are no givens in sport. Water polo isn't poker and the vagaries of sport are indeed fickle. Water polo teams not only have to overcome their own mistakes, like bad passes, missed shots or confusion on defense, but they also have to overcome the mistakes of the referees, who blow their whistles as many as 200 times a game. Not only do they call more fouls, but as close-up, slow-motion video analysis has shown, water polo referees also make more mistakes than referees in any other sport. While this is partially explained by players playing a game in the water, it is a major psychological factor that coaches and players have to deal with. How well teams handle these game situations can be critical to the outcome of the contest and with teams as closely matched as they are in the Olympic Games, the response to referee mistakes by players and coaches could be a critical factor.
Then there's the pressure of the Olympic Games. If there is one concern about the US Women‘s team, it is that there are only three returning Olympians on the squad. Even though this team has proven its superiority over the competition time and time again since Athens, playing in a World Cup, World League Super Final or World Championship is not like playing in an Olympic semi-final or final on the world's stage.
Common wisdom in the water polo world has traditionally dictated that only a team with seven or eight returning Olympians could win the Gold. If coach Baker wins, it will be a testament to the athlete pipeline that he designed and through which all of his women have progressed to make the Olympic team.
The preliminary rounds have the USA, Russia, Italy and China in one group and the Netherlands, Australia, Greece and Hungary in the other. The way the tournament works is that the winner of the group gets a bye to the semi final while second place finisher in the one group plays the third in the other. The winners of these games then advance to play the teams that won the bye in the semi-final.
The first test for the USA Women will be against China. A year ago this game was predicted to be a walk in the park and last week the professional odds-makers had the home team as a 75:1 longshot to medal. But last week, those odds were sliced to 15:1 after the Chinese women beat Italy and Greece, each by two goals, at a pre-Olympic tournament in Singapore. Four years ago, in Athens, these two teams won the gold and silver medals. We'll get a good feel for how the USA and the other teams are preparing for the final rounds after opening day competition.