Drawing on sterling performances from some unlikely sources, the United States reached its goal of winning 100 medals as the Athens Olympics entered their final day and guaranteed that it will haul home more gold, silver and bronze than any of its rivals for the third consecutive Summer Games.
The men's basketball team gave the United States its 100th medal, but it was bronze, rather than the gold that seemed a likelihood when the star-studded squad arrived in Greece. The U.S. women upstaged the men, defeating Australia in the championship game to claim their third consecutive basketball gold.
Three U.S. relay teams also won medals on the final night of track and field, with the only surprise being that the perennially dominant men's 4x100-meter team took silver, rather than gold, in a race won by Britain. The rest of the day's windfall came in events outside Americans' mainstream sports. Steven Lopez won gold in taekwondo. Freestyle wrestlers claimed three medals, including gold for Cael Sanderson. And sailors John Lovell and Charlie Ogletree won silver in the Tornado class.
The result was just what the U.S. Olympic Committee hoped for. Its officials had projected that U.S. Olympians would edge Russia for victory in the medal count at Athens, with an energized China, in line to host the 2008 Games, closing fast. And the competition followed that script, though in far more dramatic fashion than anticipated.
Paced by its swimmers and track stars, the United States clinched the medal count with one day of competition remaining.
Russia finished second with plenty of bronze and precious little gold. And China served notice it could be well on the way to toppling the United States from the podium in 2008, and becoming its new chief rival. It won a record 62 medals (with possibly more to come Sunday) -- half of them gold.
Athens, in short, signaled a new world order in the Olympic medal count. And the upshot is a new story line for generations of Americans who grew up viewing the Olympics as a battle between the world's two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, which have alternated spots atop the medal count at every Olympics from 1948 through the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. As of Athens, the Games have become a three-way race, with China's masses looming as the United States' most imposing foe.
"Certainly with an eye on 2008, we're prepared that it'll no longer be two countries battling for that overall medal count, but three," said Steve Roush, the USOC's director of sport performance. As for Russia's decline, Roush conceded: "We're taken back a little bit. We came into it expecting them to have higher numbers. I don't really have an explanation, but when the tree is right before you, the forest might not be seen."
The decline was inevitable after the Soviet Union splintered into 15 nations in the early 1990s. Those former Soviet republics combined for 65 medals in Athens, with Ukraine and Belarus leading the pack. Many of the Soviet Union's expert coaches also departed in droves for better-paying jobs around the globe.
On another level, the very notion of the medal count as a measure of global hegemony is losing relevance as the Games shift their focus to China.
The Beijing Games are shaping up less as a tilt between superpowers and more as a platform for global marketing campaigns. And the goal -- at least in the view of the multinational corporations that underwrite the staggering costs (projected at $33 billion for Beijing) -- is no longer to triumph over the Soviet menace. It's to be perceived as a partner to China, home to one-fifth of the world's population and 1.3 billion potential customers.
"In a post-Cold War era, the medal-count game doesn't have as much significance anymore," says Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "The top sponsors like Visa and John Hancock are global brands; they don't want to be seen as American brands. And they don't necessarily want to go back to that era of, 'Let's divide countries by their three-letter abbreviation and flags. It's us against them!' "
But to other nations, the medal count has enormous political significance, validating their place in the world.
"For those who have traditionally been at the top of the count, the bigger risk is if they under-perform because it becomes a story of, 'What happened?' " Swangard says. "For China, it's their coming-out party."
China, which won 50 total medals in 1996 and 59 in 2000, dazzled out of the gate at Athens, winning four golds on the opening day. In just four days China reached its goal of 20 golds, drawing on its supremacy in shooting, diving and women's weightlifting. As the Games continued, the Chinese displayed newfound expertise, claiming their first medals in tennis and sailing.
The gains are the result of a systematic plan, says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.
Much like East Germany and the Soviet Union once did, China has combed its provinces for youngsters with the hallmarks of Olympic champions. It has imported foreign coaches to raise its game in sports such as basketball, swimming and softball. And it has shrewdly leveraged the calculus of winning the medal count, investing heavily in sports that award multiple medals -- such as cycling, diving, judo, shooting and weightlifting -- more so than in team sports that award just a single gold.
"They can mobilize their population of 1.3 billion people by reaching throughout the country and doing the German thing of looking for children of certain body types and going to their parents and getting them to send them to national training centers," Wallechinsky said. "You will see them achieving success all across the board, except for track and swimming, which are the really difficult sports to break through in."
As result, Wallechinsky predicts China will win the medal count for the first time in Olympic history at Beijing. "You're going to see that huge," Wallechinsky says. "There is no country other than China that is going to win the most medals. And it is going to be obsessive nationalism."
China wasn't the only country to make a splash in the medal count in Athens.
Japan won as many gold medals (15) as it had in the last four Olympics combined. Israel rejoiced over its first Olympic gold medal (sailing), as did the Dominican Republic (men's 400-meter hurdles). And to the tiny African nation of Eritrea, its first medal of any color (bronze in the men's 10,000 meters) was enormous cause for celebration.
Russia got off to a slow start. And while its track specialists surged in the final week, leapfrogging China for second in the medal count, the delegation returned to Moscow with the defeated air of a faded dynasty.
Russia's male gymnasts were shut out of the medals. Its great swimming champion, Alexander Popov, also came home empty-handed.
Russia's loss, in many respects, has been the United States' gain.
U.S. gymnasts failed to win a single medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. At Athens, they won nine -- including the men's and women's individual all-around and men's and women's team silver. And the moment that 16-year-old Carly Patterson clinched her all-around gold, becoming only the second American woman (besides Mary Lou Retton in 1984) to do so, she leapt into the arms of her coach, Evgeny Marchenko, a former world champion acrobat who left Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed and opened an academy for elite gymnasts in Plano, Tex. As Marchenko hoisted a beaming Patterson on his shoulder, Russian's aging gymnastics diva, Svetlana Khorkina, scowled over the indignity of her silver medal.
But not everything Americans touched turned to gold, silver or bronze.
Despite the well chronicled achievements of Michael Phelps, who won six golds and two bronzes, the total swimming medals are down roughly 15 percent -- from 33 in Sydney to 28 in Athens.
The doping scandal that has dogged many of the country's top runners also took the sheen off the United States' showing in track and field. Superstar Marion Jones, who won five medals in Sydney, came up empty in Athens.
And with 17 gold medals at stake on Sunday, it appears that the United States' percentage of total Olympic victories will continue its slide -- from slightly more than 16 percent in 1996 to about 13 percent at Athens.
As is customary, USOC officials will take stock of the country's performance after the 2004 Games, and then sit down with each sport's governing body to review the return-on-investment it delivered in Athens.
With money tight and China coming on strong, those talks will be blunt. Sports that under-performed will likely see their funding cut; those that excelled or showed promise can expect a boost.
"The trend from Sydney to Athens has China shooting up the performance ladder," Roush said. "We don't have an unlimited supply of resources to provide. We can't sit back and say, 'Okay, you're nice guys. Here's some more money! We really hope you do well!' It really has to be critically evaluated."