True or False: Do American Athletes Rule?

The starry aggregate of America's "Dream Team" at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was so dazzling that even the opposition was charmed by its Magic, as well as its Larry and Michael. Two years later at the world championships, Dream Team II was an exercise in ugly Americanism. The U.S. squad laughed up and down the court, punctuating its romps with the NBA's native tongue, trash talk. But sports adheres to the law of "he who laughs last," and lately America has not been laughing. Its recent Dream Team incarnations have been smacked by a succession of nations—Argentina, Spain, Greece, Lithuania—that, not long ago, had never done anything with a big round ball except kick it.

The Dream Team nightmare embodies the American sports experience in this global era. For most of the 20th century, the United States was an envied (if often loathed) sports über-power. Yet beyond the Olympics and a few lower-profile competitions, America wasn't all that anxious to engage the world. The country preferred idiosyncratic, homegrown games—baseball, basketball and American football—and, without the least embarrassment, pronounced its winners "world champions." But nothing invited as much scorn from abroad as America's refusal to embrace the world's game, soccer.

All that has changed in the new millennium. The United States now eagerly sends its basketball and baseball superstars to international tourneys. And it's hard to lay the soccer rap on a country that recently reached the World Cup quarterfinals and where the game, at youth levels, is more of a national pastime than baseball. If foreign fans still root fervently against American might, it is less a reflection of U.S. athletic prowess than of a distaste for U.S. foreign policy. On today's sporting fields, America is far more of a patsy than a world beater. It can't win at its own games like basketball or baseball—Japan won both the Olympic gold and the World Baseball Classic—nor at international events it once ruled. The United States has gone 11 years without a victory in tennis's Davis Cup, has lost five of the last six golfing Ryder Cups to Europe and, after keeping its namesake America's Cup on our shores for its first 132 years, hasn't won sailing's premier competition since 1992. One bright spot: thanks to 35 years of Title IX, U.S. women's teams are prospering.

Of course, the U.S. athletic establishment deserves some credit for these reversals of fortune. It has exported its games as well as its know-how with missionary zeal, pursuing a vision of global competition (and global markets). Nobody did it earlier or better than the NBA; its return on investment is a league that is now 20 percent foreign—one where the champion San Antonio Spurs suited up six foreign-born players, including the team's three biggest stars, Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands), Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina). But much of the blame for the country's sporting failures also lies here. The old saw "There is no 'I' in 'team' " must translate better to foreign tongues, as American athletes have such difficulty grasping the concept.

Traditionally, many of America's best athletes emerged from its poorest communities. Now hungrier athletes from poorer nations are surpassing them. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the United States' sporting decline than two historic titles—"world's fastest man" and "heavyweight champion of the world." The titles embody speed and strength, the fundamentals of sport. And from Jesse Owens to Carl Lewis, from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali, they represent extraordinary American legacies. Today the world's fastest man is a Jamaican, and the four reigning heavyweight champs are from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.