Q: I am an Italian and I found it irritating to hear the US media constantly refer to Americans at the recent Olympics as “Team USA.” Why wasn’t the prefix “Team” used for other countries? Where does this usage come from?
A: You’re right that the American news media used “Team USA” a lot during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but other national teams occasionally got the prefix too.
For example, an Aug. 6, 2012, article on the ESPN website about the basketball competition refers to both “Team USA” and “Team France.”
And a story that same day on Yahoo! Sports about fencing says, “Team Italy rounded out its fantastic week by snatching gold in the men’s team foil event.”
Also, an Aug. 13, 2012, item on the Forbes magazine website says, “Team Russia got off to an awful start in London, and for the better part of a week Kazakhstan had actually won more gold medals.”
We could cite dozens of other examples, but let’s first discuss how the word “team” came to be used in this sense.
The usage originally referred to the Canadian national ice hockey team as it prepared for its September 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union. Canada won four games to three, with one tie.
The earliest written example of the usage that we’ve seen is from a photo caption in the Toronto Star, Sept. 1, 1972:
“Team canada coach Harry Sinden is an intense observer at Soviet Union’s hockey practice in Montreal Forum this morning. Sinden watched the Olympic champions’ workout before making final decisions on lineup for opening game.”
As for “Team USA,” the earliest examples of the usage that we’ve been able to find are from hockey and have nothing to do with the Olympics.
The first such reference, dated Feb. 16, 1976, is in an Associated Press dispatch about the newly announced Canada Cup international hockey series, which was inaugurated that fall.
The AP story, picked up by the Miami News and other papers, says that “85 percent of the American-born players in the NHL and the rival World Hockey Association have agreed to play in the tournament. The squad will be called Team USA.”
North American newspapers and wire services were soon referring to both “Team USA” and “Team Canada.”
For example, a June 27, 1976, article in the New York Times says: “North America’s plans to defend its hockey reputation in an international tournament, to be held this September, took shape last week with the naming of coaching staffs and preliminary rosters for Team Canada and Team U.S.A.”
An AP story that ran in several newspapers on Aug. 10, 1976, uses the phrase “Team USA” in a way that identifies it exclusively with hockey:
“Team USA, the group of hockey players with American citizenship which is entered in next month’s Canada Cup international tournament, officially opened training camp Monday.” The same article calls the Canadian competitors “Team Canada.”
The other major US wire service, United Press International, used the same two phrases that year in stories about the hockey series.
Wire-service dispatches commonly appear with minor editing changes from newspaper to newspaper, but the “Team” phrase was picked up pretty consistently in the newspapers we checked.
The US and Canadian sports columnists who covered the series also referred to “Team USA” and “Team Canada.”
But columnists and local sportswriters, as well as the wire services, generally referred to teams from other nations very differently—“Sweden,” “the Czechs” (or “the boys from Prague”), “the Soviets,” “the Russian players,” “Finland” (or “the pesky Finns”), “Poland” (or “lowly Poland”), and so forth.
Since the mid-1970s, the “Team USA” refrain has become ubiquitous. As we know, it quickly outgrew hockey, and “Team USA” is now used for virtually any team representing the US in any international competition.
In fact, the phrase has even outgrown traditional sports. “Team USA” has been used, for example, to describe the American team in the World Scrabble Championship.
Still, nowhere has “Team USA” showed up as much as in American coverage of the Olympics. That’s not surprising, since the website of the US Olympic Committee is called “Team USA.”
Did the US news media go overboard in reporting on “Team USA” at the Olympics? Perhaps, but the British, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and other media didn’t exactly ignore their own Olympic teams.
[Note: This post was updated on May 23, 2023.]