To no one's surprise, really, the United States has quickly placed itself on the gold standard at the 1984 Olympics. The medal table was weighted heavily in the home team's favor after the first three days of competition. China, making an even greater ''leap'' into sporting prominence than had been expected, had garnered the second highest total, while West Germany, Canada, and other nations earned enough moments in the sun to keep the competition from being strictly an intramural show.
Most of the early American triumphs, of course, were coming in that old US standby of swimming, where the gold intake is even higher than usual this time with the absence of the East German women and other Soviet bloc competitors.
With Tracy Caulkins and Tiffany Cohen dominating their 400-meter individual medley and 400 freestyle specialties, the US women won six of the first seven races. Mary Wayte took the 200 freestyle; Theresa Andrews captured the 100 backstroke; the 4x100 relay team won its final by almost a full second; and the Americans even picked up an extra gold medal in the bargain when Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead tied for first in the 100 freestyle to earn the sport's first double Olympic coronation. Only Annme Ottenbrite of Canada, who beat out Susan Rapp in the 200 breaststroke, was able to break the US monopoly in the first three days.
The US men weren't quite that overpowering, thanks to the presence of West Germany's Michael Gross, who became the first double gold medal winner of the Games via world record times in the 200 freestyle and the 100 butterfly, and Canada's Alex Bauman, who took the 400 individual medley. Still, the Americans won three of the first six individual events: Steve Lundquist breaking the world record in the 100 breaststroke; Rowdy Gaines, who had missed his big chance four years ago via the Moscow boycott, powering to a popular victory in the 100 freestyle; and Rick Carey scoring the first of his expected two backstroke victories although he failed to fulfill his prediction of a world record.
And in perhaps the most exciting race so far, the US 4x200 relay team of Mike Heath, Dave Larson, Jeff Float, and Bruce Hayes raced to a stirring victory over the West Germans. Not only did it take a world record time to accomplish the feat, it required a courageous performance by anchorman Hayes, who was overtaken by the formidable Gross but refused to give up and came on again to out-touch his foe at the finish.
If counting swimming victories became a little too much like counting sheep, though, Americans could take special pleasure in breakthroughs made by their athletes in gymnastics and cycling - sports in which gold medals have historically been much fewer and further betweeen.
On Tuesday evening the men gymnasts came up with a spectacular effort to beat out the favored Chinese - who had wrested the world championship from the Soviet Union last year - for the team gold medal. It was the first time since the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics that the US had won a gold in any gymnastics event.
To hold off the Chinese, who were slightly behind entering the optional routines, the US needed a strong performance top to bottom, and got it. The team's depth was evident in three perfect scores awarded to different gymnasts, Mitch Gaylord (rings), Tim Daggett (high bar), and Bart Conner (parallel bars).
Perhaps what really started the red, white, and blue ball rolling, though, was a pair of victories on Sunday's opening day of competition in cycling - another sport in which Americans had never done very well in Olympic competition.
Connie Carpenter captured the first-ever women's Olympic cycling event, a 79 kilometer road race, edging teammate Rebecca Twigg by less than a wheel length.
Carpenter's husband, Davis Phinney, participated in the men's 190-kilometer race almost right afterwards. He finished fifth, ending dreams of a golden double, but American Alexi Grewal made a little history of his own by barely outsprinting Canada's Steve Bauer in a dramatic finish. Only days before the Olympics, Grewal was fighting a drug-related disqualification from the Games. But by winning his appeal and the race, Alexi joined Carpenter in ending a 72 -year US drought on the cycling awards stand.
This kind of performance set a pace other Americans happily followed.
The men's volleyball team won its first Olympic game since 1968; the men's and women's basketball teams advanced with ease as expected in preliminary action; and the soccer team, with a victory over Costa Rica and a tough 1-0 loss to powerful Italy, was still in contention for a quarterfinal berth going into its final preliminary round game today against Egypt.
Americans picked up two more golds in shooting - Edward Etzel winning the small-bore rifle event and Pat Spurgin taking first place in the the women's air rifle competition. But here, more than in any other sport so far, the international flavor was in evidence. China's Xu Haifeng, a crack marksman in the men's free pistol, not only won the first gold medal distributed in L.A., but also the first his country has ever received. Four other Chinese marksmen won medals, as did shooters from more than a half dozen other countries.,
The Chinese also dominated the early weightlifting competition with 1-2 finishes in the 114- and 123-pound divisions and a gold medal in the 132-pound class.