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Olympic medal table: How is China even close to the US?

The Olympic medal table shows that there are many different Olympic stories – and many different paths to winning a lot of medals. The US and China go about it in opposite ways. 

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In the team event, the Ukrainian team did something that I will try to explain here, but will fail to capture in its full OMG-ness. First, bear in mind that the rhythmic gymnastics team event is like an entire Super Bowl halftime show condensed into 1-1/2 minutes, without wardrobe malfunctions. Ribbons and hoops are flying through the air like fireworks while gymnasts are contorting themselves into positions that would challenge Gumby.

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In short, there's a whole lot going on.

Then in the midst of this seething mass of spandex and sparkle, one of the gymnasts is suddenly lifted above the others, as you might see in synchronized swimming. Except out of nowhere, one of the hoops comes flying at her (which does not happen in synchronized swimming). While lying on top three of her teammates and with perfect form – toe pointed, leg preternaturally straight – she kicks the centimeters-wide hoop across the entire floor. Somehow taking on the character of its dispatcher, the hoop arcs gracefully, spinning perfectly straight, until it lands as accurately and as softly as a Peyton Manning pass in the hands of a teammate. Then they continue doing other amazing things, as though this was as easy as making a ham sandwich (which, to them, it probably is). 

They finished sixth.

Watching Russia, which finished first in the qualification round, was a bit like watching Olympic ballet. The kind of gymnastics Americans are good at is technically called "artistic" gymnastics, but as routines increasingly become just a collection of the highest-scoring elements possible, "artistic" gymnastics has really become "athletic" gymnastics, with much greater emphasis on the sporting aspect than the performance.

That is not at all bad. In fact, it is probably as it should be. The Olympics are sport. But rhythmic gymnastics is where artistic gymnastics' artistry has gone. It is Cirque du Soleil without the freaky costumes, each sinuous line and leap a Degas in ecstatic motion.

And this is what we are not watching?   

Or the rowing – 2,000 meters of pure pain managed and channeled into the unearthly rhythm of eight humans in mechanical harmony. Oars struck deep and then rotated toward the sun, glinting like a lightning strike of pure energy, skittering across the still water. And then, at the end, the fatigue of a distance runner wanting to collapse at the finish line but having no space to, so each rower collapsing upon the other, the communal effort of the sport shared even in uttermost exhaustion.    

Or the trampoline, the apotheosis of backyard horseplay into something fantastical – a single man hanging 30 feet above the floor with the audacity to do something more than hope he will return to earth in one piece. Much more, in fact. 

And you can't help but notice that the Chinese men really are better than everyone else in the world at this. And you begin to think that they really do deserve to win the gold and the silver. And (silently, of course), you begin to root for them.

And then you think: But that will cut into America's medal lead!

And at last you begin to understand the true heart of the Olympics. Yes, the medal tables might rope you in. But the sport keeps you entranced, and by the end, you are rooting not for person or national pride, but simply to be amazed, because you know that you will be, invariably and overwhelmingly.

No matter which channel you are watching. 

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