LONDON – Britain must prove it is serious about improving its basketball program for the long term before its teams are cleared to compete in their home Olympics next year, a leader of the sport's world governing body said Wednesday.
FIBA secretary-general Patrick Baumann said British basketball officials need to convince the global body that "the right plan is in place" to develop the sport beyond the 2012 London Games and turn its men's and women's teams into legitimate European contenders.
Britain has lagged far behind other European countries in basketball, with the sport still struggling to gain a foothold in a country where soccer, cricket and rugby hold sway.
"We want to make sure that the efforts they have made in basketball for the last six or seven years are not lost," Baumann told The Associated Press. "We want the country to become one of the strongest in Europe."
FIBA is scheduled to rule on Britain's Olympic status at a central board meeting March 13 in Lyon, France. The British Basketball Federation, set up in 2006 in hopes of ensuring Olympic participation in 2012, has submitted a dossier backing its case.
"They need to convince the central board that they know what to do after the London Olympic Games in order to grow the game in the U.K. and they have clear plans on governance," Baumann said. "If they manage to do that, it will be a relatively simple decision to allow the teams to get to the games."
"We can only be happy for this," Baumann said. "The image that basketball gets is just amazing. It also indicates the NBA sees this as a potentially strong basketball market. It means there is demand for the game."
NBA Commissioner David Stern has expressed hope that Britain will play in the Olympics. He sees the Olympics as a springboard to develop the game in the country and help the NBA spread its commercial business in one of Europe's most lucrative markets.
Neither British team qualifies outright for the 12-team Olympic tournaments, but FIBA is prepared to apply a special exemption offering spots for the host nation.
However, Baumann stressed that Britain should not be allowed to make just a token appearance, especially since giving the team an Olympic berth will mean another team will be left out.
Also Wednesday, the British Olympic Association announced its full backing for the teams' inclusion in the games, saying the sport has "met and exceeded the stringent legacy criteria" to merit acceptance.
The men's and women's teams have both qualified for their European championships this year.
"They have surpassed expectations and there is no question that they are now capable of producing credible performances at the London 2012 Olympic Games," BOA CEO Andy Hunt said.
The British men's team could feature Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, Ben Gordon of the Detroit Pistons and former NBA player Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who now plays for Lyon-Villeurbane of the French league. At this year's Euros in Lithuania, Britain will be in a group including Spain, Turkey, Poland and the host country.
Despite solid grassroots participation, British basketball suffers at the higher levels. The British Basketball League is far below the standard of those in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Serbia and other countries.
Baumann said Britain needs to strengthen its domestic league, achieve more success in European club competition and get television to invest in the game.
"We need a strong body that governs the game," he said.
Baumann cited a lack of participation at youth and senior levels in European championships, noting that England or Britain has played in only five Euros since their inception in 1935. Britain's appearance in the 2009 tournament — where the team lost to Slovenia, Spain and Serbia — was its first since 1981.
"It's time for the basketball family to say, 'Let's forget the past, what are you going to do for the next 20 years?'" Baumann said.
Britain's answer, he said, should be: "We're going to be there for every single event in every single category in every single gender every year. And we're going to make it happen and we're going to be there and we're going to bid for medals."