By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 24 -- To a crescendo of cheers, China's athletes streamed past dancing, scarf-waving cheerleaders into Beijing's red-glowing National Stadium, the order and pomp of the Opening Ceremonies 16 nights ago replaced by casualness and frivolity and fun. Drums rumbled and spectators wildly waved red-and-orange fringed fans as the Summer Games wound to its conclusion with Closing Ceremonies that felt very much like a gigantic party.
After a Games dogged by air-quality concerns and human rights issues, the sense of accomplishment that pervaded the place throbbed like the near-constant drumbeat. So often viewed through a prism of politics, this electric, pyrotechnic finale reminded that the Olympics also brought China forward as a sports powerhouse, validating a seven-year effort not only to stage a great Games but to put its national team in the middle of it.
And that's why nearly 90,000 people cheered and danced and celebrated: The kids in red, trained so young and for so long, did good.
"The Chinese team," U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth said, "is fantastic."
Yet China didn't emerge so forcefully that the United States was pushed into the background. While China won the gold medal count as many expected, winning 51 (15 more than the United States and 19 more than it won in Athens), the United States did plenty of winning, too.
The Americans finished first in total medals with 110, the most a U.S. team has accrued in a non-boycotted Games. (China finished with 100, 36 more than it won four years ago.)
"China has won the most gold medals and the United States of America won the most total," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said during a news conference Sunday. "I believe each country will highlight what suits it best. One country will say, 'Gold medals.' The other country will say, 'The total tally counts.' We take no position on that."
From the start, the Chinese made it clear they valued gold more than silver or bronze, and Chinese athletes who settled for the lesser metals occasionally expressed deep despair. A 2004 Olympic gold medal winner in table tennis, Wang Nan, who managed a silver at these Games, described the stress of trying to hold on to that title. "In the end, there wasn't much reason for me to smile," Wang said, "because the pressure of being a gold medalist is huge."
U.S. officials, on the other hand, rejoiced in medals of any color, so uncertain were they about precisely how many they would succeed in wresting from the Olympics' new powerhouse nation. And U.S. officials attempted to stretch the gold they got as far as possible.
USOC Chief Executive Jim Scherr proved that, if you do a little creative math, you can even call the U.S. team a victor in the gold medal count, too. Scherr told reporters last week that more individual U.S. Olympians will take home gold medals than athletes from any other nation.
His reasoning? The United States got hordes of medals that only counted as one in the win column. After a lukewarm performance four years ago in team sports, the United States won golds in men's and women's basketball, men's volleyball and women's soccer.
There were also silvers in softball and men's and women's water polo, and a bronze in baseball.
"We don't feel we've declined in performance," Scherr said.
Years of experience have caused USOC officials to rank Olympic performances not merely on the number of medals, but also on the absence of discipline problems, which inevitably garner the biggest headlines. And this year, despite sending a contingent of nearly 600 athletes, there was just one pre-Games flap among Americans, when four track cyclists walked into Beijing's international airport wearing their USOC-issued air-filtration masks. The cyclists, whose photos appeared around the world, almost immediately apologized, and the uproar died quickly. Once the events got under way, there were no athletes who professed a lack of interest in the competition, no offensive hot-dogging and no wee-hours fighting -- all of which took place at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.
Instead, U.S. officials were able to listen like proud parents when Rogge, asked during Sunday's closing new
Instead, U.S. officials were able to listen like proud parents when Rogge, asked during Sunday's closing news conference to name his best moments from the last two weeks, mentioned two things: The first was the embrace between Georgian and Russian shooters shortly after Russia had invaded Georgia the night of the Opening Ceremonies.
The second surprised: Rogge mentioned the demeanor of little-known U.S. shooter Matt Emmons, who, for the second Olympics in a row, lost a gold medal with an inexplicably errant last shot. In 2004, Emmons fired at the wrong target. Here, he just missed.
"What moved me most was the attitude of this man," Rogge said. "This is a big failure, but he said, 'I'll take responsibility and I'll come back and win the gold.' This is the true Olympic spirit."
Most critical of all, there have been no drug-test positives among U.S. athletes (though it will take several more days for all of the samples taken here to be analyzed). Other than a positive test two weeks before the Games by swimmer Jessica Hardy, who did not accompany the team here, the U.S. team competed without controversy.
"We consider this one of the most successful engagements in the Olympic Games ever," Scherr said. "This team represented our nation in exemplary fashion, and we could not be more proud."