As Brendan Joyce, the coach of Australia’s women’s basketball team, so bluntly put it, if you are not gunning for gold you should not be competing.
Joyce is keen to get his point across when asked an all-too frequent question about the Opals and their chances of finally striking Olympic gold at the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite being crowned world champions in 2006, Australia have continually fallen agonizingly short at the Olympics, silver medalists to arch-nemesis the United States in 2000, 2004 and 2008, though it has not been for a want of trying.
London four years ago saw the Opals win their second bronze medal following a third-place finish in Atlanta in 1996, and they went on to claim bronze at the World Championships in 2014, having fallen short to familiar foe USA in the semi-finals.
This month the new and rejuvenated Opals are again in the conversation when it comes to topping the podium, despite notable absentees including retired great Lauren Jackson, as well as Kristi Harrower and Suzy Batkovic.
And while Joyce and his team are not in Rio to make up the numbers, the former Boomers assistant is wary of looking too far ahead, with a semi-final berth the goal in Brazil.
“People talk and say a lot of things and they don’t know what they’re on about,” Joyce told Omnisport. “We’ve won medals but that is the past. The future is we want to medal again.
“If you don’t go to a competition wanting to be the best, then I don’t know why you’re in it. But in 2010 at the World Championships the team finished fifth and had superstars. You do your research on how to win a gold medal and obviously it comes back to how you play offensively and defensively. It is also down to a balance of experience and youth.
“People just go off and talk but don’t actually have facts to back up what they’re talking about. If you look into teams who win gold medals, the average age is 27. If you look at the Opals teams, the best times to win gold were in 2008 and 2012 because those teams were just full of players that had been to World Championships and Olympic Games. That’s just based on age and experience.
“Looking at our team. Not many people expected us to medal at the World Championships in 2014. We went there trying to win a gold medal. We talked about trying to win. But if you look at that team, only three players were from the Olympic Games in 2012. That was an unbelievable moment and one of my proudest moments as a coach to be involved in that team winning bronze. It was like winning gold, beating Turkey on their home floor and there are 16 teams you have to get through in the World Championships.
“How do we continue to win a medal? What we’ve done since I got the job, I looked at the team from London and I noticed 10 girls were going to be over 30 years of age come Rio. This was going to be a big challenge because there were going to be retirements or girls [who] wanted to have babies. Who would’ve foreseen the injuries to Lauren Jackson after London? I knew we had some work to do. I had to expose players to a lot of games. Some people thought I blooded players ahead of their time, well I had to because the team was old!”
The Opals – boasting veteran Penny Taylor as well as towering center Liz Cambage – are set to come up against hosts Brazil, France, Turkey, Japan and Belarus in Group A, with four of the six teams qualifying for the quarter-finals.
“We’ve proven ourselves. We won a bronze medal and only lost one game at worlds and now we have to do it at the Olympic Games. We’re challenging ourselves to continue to win a medal,” Joyce added.
“Most people say we can’t win a gold medal. USA keep winning it and they keep carrying over players from previous Olympics. But instead of just saying we are going to win a gold medal because I think you’re getting ahead of yourself if you say that, so the goal is to get to the semi-finals and then you can start talking about it.
“The focus is how we play and playing together. We aren’t the most talented team in the world but we have to be united and we will be the best conditioned team.”