US still favored, but world is gaining

As the Games begin Friday, the Americans will be defending Olympic gold, but other countries are catching up.

When the Olympics eventually draw to a close 17 days from now, the final medal table will probably tell two very different stories. First, that America remains the most dominant nation of the summer Games. And second, that the rest of the world is catching up.

Since 1992, when the former Soviet Union made its last stand as the Unified Team, the United States has been the world's lone sports superpower, largely untroubled in the overall medal standings. The same will almost certainly be true this year - and with lack of a true rival, the US Olympic Committee has instead set it sights on a number: 100 total medals.

The team has a good shot at achieving that mark for only the seventh time in 24 summer Olympiads. Yet even if it does, these Games could be the least successful in American Olympic history by the one most obvious measure: gold.

As the summer Olympics add more sports, such as taekwondo and kayaking, America's gold-medal haul has held largely steady. The result is that its 40 gold medals in the 2000 Olympics represented its smallest share ever of total golds awarded at a Games - only 13 percent.

Considering that it is still the strongest Olympic nation, the US isn't likely to spiral into a crisis of Olympic confidence if it garners a similar total this year. But the figures prove that the new sports have done precisely what they were intended to do - globalize the Games. Moreover, they suggest that while the US might continue to dominate events such as swimming and track, the growth of a whole new and unnoticed Olympic landscape might soon allow nations such as China to test America's medal supremacy.

"I would be shocked" if the US didn't top the medal standings, says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian. "But the percentage of gold medals won by the US is going down, and it's not that the US is getting worse. Other countries are getting better."

Gold-colored glasses

Yet the trend will be almost undetectable on American television sets. If anything, the US might even appear more dominant than ever. That's because in America's marquee sports, which get the most US air time, they are.

Michael Phelps and his aqua nostra are seemingly trying to break the 100-medal plateau singlehandedly, bringing to Athens what could be the most talented men's swimming squad since a gallon of gas cost $0.59 - in 1976. The men's and women's gymnastics teams are considered the best in US history, and even after the nation's biggest doping scandal, US Track and Field remains an international juggernaut.

Add in round-the-clock coverage of beach volleyball, where US women are expected to finish atop the medal stand, and American viewers will likely be seeing the Olympics through gold-colored glasses.

"The Olympics [coverage] is very dependent on how the US teams do," says David Tice, a marketing analyst at Knowledge Networks in Cranford, N.J. "If somebody's doing well ... that carries the day."

That's only natural. All countries focus on what they do the best - whether it's badminton in Indonesia or volleyball in Brazil. But for the 72 years from the beginning of the modern Games to the Mexico City Games of 1968, what America did best was the largest chunk of the Olympics. During that time, America never won fewer than 20 percent of the golds, except in the Berlin Games of 1936.

Since 1972, however, America has never won more than 17 percent of the golds, except in the Soviet bloc-boycotted 1984 Games.

In 1972, the Games for the first time surpassed 175 total events. This year - as in 2000 - the summer Olympics will have 301 medal events.

Too much to squeeze

The new assortment is far broader than what NBC can squeeze into its prime-time slot. The American team is made up of a wrestler named Stephen Abas, a kayaker named Rami Zur, and 529 athletes in between - filling 34 of the 37 Olympic disciplines. Only handball, field hockey, and - strangely enough - baseball, have no US competitors. Despite NBC's monstrous 1,210 hours of programming on seven channels, most will pass unheeded by anyone with a day job or a desire to sleep more than four hours a night.

As in every Olympics, there are the compelling stories of individual lives interlaced with greatness, as well as the champions who could come from sports on the far distant shore of American consciousness.

Sada Jacobson, for one, is favored to become the first American to win a fencing gold medal since 1908 - and the first fencing medal of any color for the US in 20 years. The equestrian team has an opportunity to put in perhaps its best Olympic performance ever.

America's cornerstone sports

But just as in the ancient Olympics, when the city-state of Kroton could be counted on to send the best runners and Syracuse was renowned for its horsemanship, America will again be distinguished by its swimmers and runners. It has been that way since the modern Olympics began, when a makeshift American squad arrived in Athens the night before the Games began and won nine of 12 track-and-field events. As recently as 1976, US swimmers won every gold except one and swept the medals in five of 11 events. This year's teams might not be able to duplicate those feats, but come closing ceremonies, they are likely to once again be the most common sight on the top of the podium.

"Those are our sports," says Mr. Wallechinsky. Otherwise for the US, "there's going to be a little bit here and a little bit there."

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