Venezuela’s men’s basketball team may not be the tallest on view at Rio 2016, but that will not stop the South Americans from reaching for the sky on their first appearance at the Olympic Games since Barcelona 1992.
The Venezuelans kick off their campaign against 2014 FIBA World Cup runners-up Serbia on Saturday, and face an even more daunting prospect in their second match two days later, when they take on defending champions USA. Just to make matters even harder for the Olympic returnees, they will be giving away an average two inches (5cm) in height to the Americans.
Despite that disadvantage, the South Americans are determined to make their presence felt, as veteran guard John Cox explained: “We don’t play too fast. We play defence. We play physical because we’re small.” One of the smaller players on the team at 6’5 (1.96m), Cox added: “We’ll grind it out. It’s going to be a defensive game for us, every game, and physical.”
Getting to Rio is an achievement in itself for the Venezuelans, who are now ranked 22 in the world and qualified by making the final of the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship.
“I didn’t think we would make it, that’s why it’s so surreal right now,” said the Caracas-born Cox, who was raised in the United States and lives in Las Vegas. “You’re so anxious to get started, taking in everything, I didn’t think we would do it.”
Surprise 76-71 winners over Argentina in that continental final, Venezuela are aiming to make it through to the quarter-finals, but face an uphill battle in a Group A that also features China, France and Australia. All five of their first-round opponents are ranked above them.
In preparing for the challenge, Cox and his team-mates had a tough pre-Games schedule, taking on USA, Spain and Lithuania, the top three teams in the world. Though beaten 80-45 by the Americans, they could take heart from the result, with the USA having posted at least 106 points in each of their other four Rio 2016 warm-up games, against Argentina, China (twice) and Nigeria.Contemplating the task ahead of them, the 35-year-old Cox: “You’ve got to play really, really high-level, top basketball. You can’t turn the ball over. You’ve got to execute. If not, you’re not even going to be close. For us, we have to play our best basketball to win these games.”