Medal Count Gets Down To Brass Tacks
BEIJING As Sanya Richards took the baton for the anchor leg of the 4x400-meter relay on Saturday night, she trailed by five yards. Her position was much like the entire U.S. Olympic team's frustration in these Games, constantly behind China in gold medals and chafing at its inability to meet its own high expectations. Night and day, America's hopes seemed to turn from gold to silver, silver to bronze, or in several cases, from fame to utter flameout.
But the U.S. team has also been resilient and now, as the Olympics reaches its final hours, America may, once again, be the best overall team in these Games, if only by a tiny margin. By the Closing Ceremonies, the United States may not only have a large lead over China in total medals but, by any sensible scoring system, edge China in total performance.
As Saturday began, the United States had 31 gold, 36 silver and 36 bronze medals; China had 48 gold, 17 silver and 27 bronze. How do we combine these apples and oranges to get a final score? You don't want to know who won?
Come on, Olympic ideals or not, this is a competition. It certainly is to the Chinese whose TV is full of "gold rush" chest beating, claiming it has already won its own Olympics before they are even over. You mean we're not going to decide on a way to keep score? Not around here.
An old baseball manager, Davey Johnson, accidentally showed me how to do it. I asked how he'd get his team up to play for a bronze medal early on Saturday morning. "Oh, the money usually does a pretty good job of that," he said.
The U.S. Olympic Committee pays $25,000 to each athlete for a gold medal, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. So there's your market-based system: 25 points for gold, 15 for silver, 10 for bronze. By that method, when Saturday began, China led overall, 1,725-1,675, a gap equivalent to two gold medals. Somebody call NBC and tell them they're missing a hell of a horse race.
Richards's anchor leg was a perfect example of a U.S. comeback that's gaining speed. She'd been favored but finished a bitterly disappointed third in the 400 meters.
"I told Allyson [Felix]: 'We didn't come this far to go home without a gold medal. Let's get it together,' " said Richards of her teammate, who viewed her own silver at 200 meters as a loss. "When I saw we were behind, I thought, 'I finally get to chase and have fun.' I put it into overdrive with 120 meters to go. She [Anastasia Kapachinskaya of Russia] was still going strong."
But not for long. Richards steamed past Kapachinskaya for victory in the U.S. team's fastest time of the season. Minutes later, the U.S. men's 4x400 team won by 25 yards in Olympic-record time.
Just two days ago, the United States butchered both 4x100 relays, dropping baton passes in qualifying heats that should have been a cakewalk. Gone, in a blink, two silver medals, almost certainly, and maybe better.
America, however, has always been known for its self-confidence, its ability to view defeat as an accident, not a destiny. All over Beijing, the United States has been finishing these Games strong, ignoring earlier failures and regrouping.
The baseball team, its sport kicked out of the Games for '12, upset Japan for bronze. The women's volleyball team, dealing with the tragedy of the murder of a former teammate's father two weeks ago, battled to a silver medal. Last, the women's basketball team finished with its expected squash-everybody-flat gold medal.