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Two defeats in the space of 60 minutes on Sunday night underlined just why the US Olympic squad travelled to Athens with such trepidation. It is not just the threat of terrorism that persuaded some athletes to stay at home but also questions about whether this squad can maintain the US's position as sport's premier superpower.

First the US 4x100m freestyle relay team could take only bronze in the swimming pool, ending Michael Phelps' attempt at a record eight gold medals before it had even really started. Then, more shattering for US pride, the basketball team that last lost an Olympic match in 1988 were well beaten by Puerto Rico.

It is difficult not to see the 92-73 defeat, only the third time a US basketball team have ever lost at an Olympics in more than 100 matches, as a potential motif for the whole squad at these Games. With a track and field team brought low by drugs allegations, swimmer Phelps revealed to be human a view confirmed by last night's 200m freestyle final and the once feted basketball “Dream Team” exposed as vulnerable, the pre-Games prediction by the US Olympic Committee that the squad would win 100 medals seems wildly optimistic.

The performance of the National Basketball Association's millionaires that 1988 defeat to Russia prompted the rule change which allowed professionals to compete from 1992 was so poor that it inspired the San Jose Mercury to declare in apocalyptic terms: “One hundred and thirteen years ago, an American resident invented basketball. Sunday night, 12 Americans just about killed it off.”

Equally doom-laden commentators suggested that the anaemic defeat marked the end of US dominance in the sport that the NBA is no longer producing the best players. This claim ignored the fact that the inspirational Puerto Rican guard Carlos Arroyo earns his living playing for Utah Jazz.

If these comments represent an over-reaction, it is only a small one. A defeat at the Olympics was not wholly unexpected the US had lost to Italy and struggled to beat Turkey en route to Athens. Losing was a possibility but only against a traditionally strong rival such as Lithuania or perhaps China, not against an island that many Americans believe they


The average age of this team is just 23 but any side with Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and the teenager Lebron James should be formidable. Instead, on Sunday they were not even competitive they couldn't shoot or retain possession and in the second period looked as though they didn't really care.

A less sympathetic interpretation might be that they wanted to leave Athens as quickly as possible and join their fellow NBA professionals who chose not to make the journey, such as Shaquille O'Neal and Jason Kidd.

Tonight against hosts Greece they have a chance to atone. They need to win to get their campaign back on track with group matches against Australia, Lithuania and Angola to follow over the next week. Four teams qualify from the two groups for the quarter-finals so one defeat does not mean the end for the US.

But coach Larry Brown, who admitted to being humiliated after Sunday's match, was clear about what needed to happen: “We have to become a team in a short period of time. Throw your egos out the window.”

The US squad may still lead the medals table at the end of these Games. They may even still win the men's basketball tournament. But after the failure of the US baseball team even to qualify for Athens, the defeat of the basketball stars has raised the prospect that US invincibility has gone, perhaps for ever.

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