LONDON — The defining story line for the U.S. Olympic team at these London Summer Games can be viewed either in heartwarming, eye-moistening and inspirational terms, or on a purely calculating and practical level.
As American women athletes here used the Olympics as their personal stage, furthering the tide of advancement initiated by the 40-year-old sports-equity law known as Title IX, Team USA by necessity rode their accomplishments.
Women won two-thirds of the U.S. team’s golds and nearly 60 percent of the overall medals, not only offering a jubilant plug for Girl Power, but also propelling the United States back to the top of both the overall medal table and the gold medal table — two perches that seemed under serious threat by China at the Summer Games in 2008.
The United States finished the Games with 104 medals and 46 gold, topping China, which claimed 87 and 38 for second in both categories — four years after winning the gold medal race in Beijing.
The U.S. team’s dominance, fueled by women who rolled up 29 golds and 59 total medals, defied the pre-Games speculation of London organizing committee leader Sebastian Coe.
“The only thing Seb got slightly wrong is he predicted we would come in behind China in the medal count,” USOC Chairman Larry Probst said Saturday, adding later, “We’re pretty happy about that. . . . Yeah, we like to come in first.”
First place makes a difference to the USOC, the only national Olympic committee that receives no government funding. The organization relies on donations from corporations and individuals to provide support for its athletes.
The United States, in the midst of one of the longest droughts between Games staged on American soil, sorely needs excellence on the field of play, preferably accompanied by the playing of “Star Spangled Banner” at medal ceremonies, to ensure that funds continue to flow.
“The people who make donations to us want to see their money making a difference,” USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun said. “We have to be good stewards.”
The best stewards, at least in medal count, were the U.S. women, who routinely defied expectations and unveiled surprises. Though Michael Phelps continued his Olympic medal assault with six in the Games’ first week, becoming the most decorated Olympian ever, many of the U.S. team’s best moments came from female stars.
Swimmer Missy Franklin, 17, matched Phelps for the most gold medals of any athlete with four, becoming the first American since Amy Van Dyken in 1996 to earn the distinction of being the “Queen of the Games.”
Kayla Harrison won the first medal ever in judo for the United States. Gabby Douglas captured the women’s all-around gold medal in gymnastics. Claressa Shields won the first middleweight women’s boxing medal. Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky, 15, won gold in the 800 freestyle. Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross collected five golds between them in women’s track.
The U.S. women’s soccer team won the gold over Japan; the U.S. women’s basketball team won its fifth straight gold. And the U.S. women’s 4x100-meter relay team broke a 27-year-old world record in winning the first gold in the event since 1996.
That victory provided a signature moment that deeply affected Justin Gatlin, who won the bronze medal in the 100 and a silver with the men’s 4x100 relay team. Gatlin said he watched in amazement as anchor Carmelita Jeter finished the race by pointing the baton at the clock in the homestretch.
“It was magical,” Gatlin said. “It just made me feel like us — as guys for the USA team — [we] had to stand up and step up.”
If the U.S. women were their own nation, they would have finished third in the gold medal table with 29 medals. The U.S. men won 15, trailing the men from China (17) and Great Britain (16).
The many times female stars stole the spotlight surely helped enhance the perception that strong and feminine don’t conflict, Harrison said.
“Being a strong female competitor is the best thing we can do to sort of fight that,” said Harrison. “It doesn’t matter how you look when you win a gold medal, because you just won a gold medal. . . . I’m hoping we have a million little girls who are inspired right now.”
Said Francena McCorory, a member of the gold-medal winning women’s 4x400 relay team: “We hope we’ve set a good example, kind of a trickle down for young girls at home so they can stretch their goals high.”
Probst and Blackmun surely hope potential donors across the nation are as inspired as little girls.
The United States, which last played host to a Summer Games in 1996 and a Winter Games in 2002, has not yet decided whether it will bid for the 2024 Summer Games or 2026 Winter Games. With at least 22 years guaranteed between Games on U.S. soil, the United States needs medal-winning stars to drive interest and donations.
“I like to hear ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ ” Probst said. “A lot.”