In a change, WNBA season begins with U.S. Olympic roster spots in play

Breanna Stewart, A'ja Wilson
Getty Images

As the WNBA season starts Friday, players not only have a championship at stake, but also a spot on the most exclusive team in the sport.

For the first time since 2008, the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball roster has not been announced before the start of the WNBA season.

“There’s nobody that has a spot locked up,” on the Olympic team, said Carol Callan, the U.S. national team director and chair of the Olympic selection committee. “We’re interested in watching a lot of the beginning of the WNBA season and then progressively get to the point where we can select the team.”

The selection committee includes Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut head coach who also guided the last two Olympic champion teams and is now a special adviser for USA Basketball.

The other members come from the WNBA: Bethany Donaphin (head of league operations), Curt Miller (Connecticut Sun head coach) and Katie Smith (Minnesota Lynx assistant and athlete rep for USA Basketball).

Callan has been involved in national team selection since 1989. She’s seen it all, from a tryout system to the breakthrough 1996 team, which was largely named 14 months before the Olympics and played 52 games (winning all of them), touring Russia, Ukraine, China, Australia and Canada, before getting to Atlanta.

The 12-player roster for Tokyo is expected to come from the current 32-player national team pool (note neither Maya Moore nor Sabrina Ionescu is in the pool).

The last two Olympic teams were named in April of those years, the latter in conjunction with 100 days before the Rio Games.

This year, the committee is taking a little bit more time, in part due to a relative lack of game play because of the pandemic. Player assessment is a years-worth body of work, but a strong start to the WNBA season could also be significant. The deadline to submit the 12 players to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is June 23.

“Technically, they’re all in play,” the 12 spots, Callan said. “Realistically, I think there are players that have sort of proven themselves over time, perhaps.”

ON HER TURF: The one place women aren’t allowed in the WNBA

Committee members will converse later this spring to choose the team that will be coached by Dawn Staley.

Minus the injured Angel McCoughtry, eight players in the pool have Olympic experience: guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, looking to become the first basketball players to win five gold medals, and Seimone Augustus. And bigs Tina CharlesElena Delle Donne (returning from back surgery), Sylvia FowlesBrittney Griner and Breanna Stewart.

Furthermore, forwards A’ja Wilson and Nneka Ogwumike won a WNBA MVP since Rio. (Ogwumike, who may be particularly valuable in the absence of small forwards Moore and McCoughtry, could become the second-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s basketball rookie in history after Asjha Jones, according to

“The front line, to me, is really the advantage of this team,” said NBC Olympics analyst Kara Lawson, who is also Duke’s head coach and a USA Basketball adviser for 3×3 teams (coaches aren’t allowed in 3×3, which debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo).

The U.S. women won their last 49 Olympic games — dating to 1992 — and in Tokyo can tie the Olympic basketball record of seven consecutive gold medals. Bird and Taurasi are stalwarts for a program that also hasn’t lost a world championship game since 2006, but with this likely their last Olympics, new guards will emerge.

“They’re going to be fine at that position with whoever they bring,” Lawson said.

For the 2018 FIBA World Cup, the committee chose Jewell Loyd (21 minutes per game), Kelsey Plum (13 mpg) and Layshia Clarendon (11 mpg) to back up Bird and Taurasi.

Arike Ogunbowale led the WNBA in scoring last year and made the All-WNBA First Team at guard with Courtney Vandersloot (who plays internationally for Hungary). Skylar Diggins-Smith came back from childbirth to make the All-WNBA Second Team with Taurasi.

“We want to let players know as soon as possible,” whether they make the team, Callan said. “But I think everybody would be OK knowing that there’s still some time to make a case for themselves, as a player, and for the committee to be able to watch a little bit more.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba

The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
File photo

Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!