Team USA just passed a major milestone, earning 1,000 gold medals in the Summer Olympics since their inception in 1896. That's more than double any other country's count. Here, you can see when, how and by whom each of those first thousand golds was earned.
Team USA has earned 244 gold medals in swimming and 324 in track and field events, making up more than half its total golds. The United States is certainly a force to be reckoned with in both of these sports, especially swimming, but that's not the only factor driving these medal counts.
Swimming and track and field simply have more medals available than the other sports. This year, there are 16 swimming events and 47 track events. Compare that with basketball, which has two: the men’s tournament, and the women’s tournament.
So although the United States is more dominant within basketball, winning over 70 percent of the golds since the sport’s introduction into the Games, that has yielded only 21 gold medals over the years. In the 2012 Olympics in London, Americans won just under half the swimming golds, and only 17 percent of the track and field ones.
That pattern can be seen in individual athletes as well. The six most decorated American athletes compete in either swimming or track and field events. Michael Phelps, who has dominated swimming for more than a decade, has accrued 13 individual gold medals and 22 golds in total. Ray Ewry, who competed in track and field events in the early 1900s, is next after Phelps with eight individual golds.
Women have earned 253 of Team USA's gold medals, about a third of what men have earned. But that’s hardly a statement about the female athletes themselves, who have been a dominant force in the Games. In 2008 and 2012, they brought home more medals than the men, especially impressive given that only around 40 percent of medals were given out in women’s sports.
What’s holding back the women’s medal count, rather, is the lack of medals available in women’s sports. Two women’s sports — golf and lawn tennis — were introduced in the second Olympic Games. The count slowly grew from there, but still, the United States sometimes held back. When women’s swimming was introduced in 1912, Americans declined to participate since women could not wear long skirts in the sport.
In 2012, the last remaining sport — boxing — allowed female participation. But a disadvantage remains. In Rio de Janeiro, only 44 percent of medals are given in women's events, though it’s the highest percentage ever.
And American women have achieved a number of significant ‘firsts’ over the years. Margaret Abbott, a golfer, won a gold medal in the 1900 Olympics, making her the first American woman, and among the first women worldwide, to win Olympic gold. Half a century later, Alice Coachman won high jump, making her the first black woman to win gold worldwide. And in these Games, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual gold in swimming. Each woman has won one individual gold to date.
The United States has been largely consistent in its medal count year to year, bringing home about 30 to 40 medals from each Summer Games. But a few years stick out; in 1904 and 1984, Team USA won more than 80.
But that didn't happen because our teams were especially strong – rather, other strong teams declined to attend. In 1904, when the Games were hosted in St. Louis, only 12 countries attended. European powerhouses and others declined to attend because of the excessive travel time and cost to get to the middle of the country. It would be many years before commercial flights began.
In 1984, the absences were political. With the games held in Los Angeles, the Soviet Union and other socialist countries declined to attend, citing the United States advocating opposition to their political systems. The Soviet Union, previously the United State’s biggest competition, essentailly cleared the way for the Americans to dominate.
Attending the Games has often been a political act. An invitation to compete has legitimized countries like East Germany and Palestine. It’s been a chance for countries like Japan to demonstrate their post-war recovery. And boycotting the games has served as a form of protest of the host country’s politics. Most famously, the United States and 64 other countries skipped the 1980 games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
But some Americans have used their medals to make political statements of their own. In 1936, Jesse Owens won 3 gold medals at the Games in Berlin. As an African American man, he stood in contrast to Adolf Hitler’s intention for the Games to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race
In 1968, the African American Tommie Smith won 1 gold medal in the 200 meter dash. On the Olympic podium, he and bronze medalist John Carlos gave the Black Power salute to protest systemic racism in the United States.