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U.S. Is as Good as Goal

Americans reach 100 medals, with men getting most of the gold in swimming and track.

August 29, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — For the 538 American athletes who went souvenir shopping these last two weeks in Greece, hunting for trinkets cast in gold, silver and bronze, this is how they made out:

They came ... well, everyone did except a dozen or so top-flight NBA players, who viewed these Games as a no-win proposition and, sure enough, they called it right.

They saw ... and were pleasantly surprised by the acute shortage of "Yankee Go Home" banners at any of the 40 Olympic venues.

They conquered.

Well, kind of.

Heading into today's final day of competition, the United States has reached the U.S. Olympic Committee's stated medal goal of 100.

Appropriately enough, the U.S. hit the century mark Saturday night when the underachieving men's basketball team scraped out the bronze medal against Lithuania.

With 100 medals -- and at least one more to come today in boxing, wrestling and volleyball -- the United States' final 2004 medal output should eclipse U.S. totals in Sydney (97 medals), Atlanta (101) and Seoul (94), and get close to Barcelona (108).

"Coming into these Games, we knew that reaching 100 medals would be an ambitious goal," USOC Chief Executive Jim Scherr said. "But we also knew that with the talent and depth on this Olympic team, it was possible....

"The level of competition at these Games has been outstanding, and this will go down as one of the greatest performances ever by a U.S. Olympic team."

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky sees it differently.

"If you judge success by gold medals won, this will be our worst performance in history," said Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics."

Through 15 days of competition, the United States had won 34 gold medals.

"The previous worst was Sydney, where we won 40 gold medals in 300 events," Wallechinsky said. "Now that's more medals than we've won in other games, but I'm going by percentage of gold medals won."

The United States' gold-medal winning percentage in Sydney was 13.3%

The Athens Olympic sports program featured 301 events. If the United States' gold medal total holds at 34, its gold-medal percentage would be 11.3%.

Analyzing the United States' performance, Wallechinsky was struck by two story lines.

"About half of our gold medals have been won by athletes in two sports -- men's track and field and men's swimming," he said. "That kind of concentration is quite unusual in large countries."

Through Saturday, male swimmers and track and field athletes had accounted for 15 of the United States' 34 gold medals. American men won nine gold medals in swimming. If the U.S. men's swim team competed as a nation, through Saturday, it would have equaled the gold-medal totals of France and Italy and surpassed those of South Korea, Britain and Greece.

Swimmer Michael Phelps won six gold medals -- four individually, two on relay teams. By himself, he outperformed the entire Olympic teams of the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Canada.

The other story line?

"Aside from the fantastic success of the women's softball and women's basketball teams, it's been the underachievement of the American women," Wallechinsky said. "I don't have a reason for it. I don't know why. But there's a big gap. The women swimmers and the women track and field athletes didn't come close to what they did in Sydney."

Only two American women won individual swim gold medals -- Natalie Coughlin in the 100-meter backstroke and Amanda Beard in the 200 breaststroke. The U.S. women also won a gold medal in the 800 freestyle relay.

In track and field, American women won only two gold medals -- Joanna Hayes in the 100-meter hurdles and a team triumph in the 1,600-meter relay.

Marion Jones won three golds by herself in Sydney, along with two bronze. Four years later, Jones competed only in two events and didn't come close to medaling. She placed fifth in the long jump and failed to complete a baton exchange after running the second leg of the 400-meter relay.

Other potential gold medals lost included: Tom Pappas in the decathlon, Allen Johnson in the 110-meter hurdles, Stacy Dragila in the women's pole vault, John Godina or Adam Nelson in men's shotput, Rulon Gardner in Greco-Roman wrestling, Brendan Hansen in the two men's breaststroke events, Andy Roddick in men's tennis singles, Venus Williams in women's tennis singles, Bob and Mike Bryan in men's tennis doubles, women's water polo, both 400-meter sprint relays and men's basketball.

Not to mention baseball. The United States won the gold medal in Sydney but failed to qualify for the Athens tournament.

There were a few surprising gold-medal pickups: men's gymnastics, men's eights rowing, Mariel Zagunis in women's fencing, Matthew Emmons and Kim Rhode in shooting.

American athletes were generally well-received in Athens.

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