At these Games, the big sports powers see less gold

For Americans, it's just as well that the Olympics came to a conclusion Sunday. Over the weekend, the ends of America's almost nightly feats of gold-medal glory had begun to fray.

A somewhat slow start was bookended by a slow finish of bricks and bumbled batons, giving America its lowest percentage of total gold medals ever. Once untouchable in men's basketball, the team struggled to scratch out a bronze. Once dominant in diving and boxing, the United States will bring home one gold between the two sports.

The ending highlighted how much the United States now pins its fortunes on two sports - swimming and track and field.

Around the world, in fact, all the traditional Olympic powers are slipping. Gold medals at these Games will be more evenly distributed than at any since the Soviet Union emerged onto the Olympic scene in 1952. "We just have more countries taking part," says David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics."

In all, at least 56 countries won gold in Athens - topping the previous record of 53 set at the Atlanta Games.

Not including the boycott years of 1980 and 1984, the Olympics were the least equitable in 1976, when the Soviet Union, East Germany, and the United States won 62 percent of the gold medals. In Athens, the United States, China, and Russia will leave with just over 30 percent of the golds.

Part of the reason is the splintering of nations in general, spreading their talent among more nations. But even in 1992, when almost all the republics of the former Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team, the top three countries still won only 44 percent of the golds - by far the lowest figure since the beginning of the Soviet era.

At a deeper level, the Olympics have had a profound effect on the development of international sport - particularly for women. For decades, many women's sports were ruled by either the US or the sports machine of East Germany and the Soviet Union.

In recent years, however, the International Olympic Committee has brought a wider range of women's sports into the Olympic Games - from water polo to weight lifting.

This year, women's wrestling made its debut, and Sara McMann can already see an impact. The American silver medalist grew up wrestling on boys' teams - often winning by forfeit because male opponents would refuse to wrestle her. Now she hears members of the US basketball team talking about going to watch a women's wrestling match, and she wonders if this will be a turning point for her sport.

"There's an acceptance now," she says. "It's going to grow by three or four times after this Olympics."

Even in women's sports that appear to still be ruled by one nation - such as basketball and soccer, where the US won golds - there are signs of change. America's success has helped breed a broader and richer sports culture for women worldwide.

When Mia Hamm and Co. won the gold in 1996, only China and Norway could stay on the field with them. In Athens, China didn't even make the knockout stages, while Norway failed to qualify for the tournament entirely. On the other hand, longtime laughingstock Mexico not only qualified for the tournament, but also advanced to the second round.

"I hope they see us as a standard- bearer of where they could be," said Hamm before the Olympics began. "We hope we had a small part [in Mexico's success]."

Unfortunately for the US medal chart, the success of women's teams has not brought a gold rush, mostly because team sports can only bring one medal for two weeks of work. By contrast, sports like diving, fencing, and rowing can bring several medals a day.

That has left the United States leaning heavily on swimming and track and field. Of the five countries that won more than 40 medals, no country was so reliant on two sports.

In fact, the US is the only one that took more than 50 percent of its medals from just two sports. China and Germany, for example, took less than 30 percent of their medals from any two sports combined.

"Most countries have a greater spread," says Mr. Wallechinsky.

Perhaps in keeping with the increasingly egalitarian conditions, Americans responded to calls for a more humble attitude throughout the Games. When grumpy Greek fans delayed the beginning of the 200 meters for 10 minutes, chanting the name of defending champion Kostas Kenteris - who had withdrawn from the Games amid doping suspicions - eventual bronze medalist Justin Gatlin reacted not with spite but with restraint.

"We wish no hardship or bad luck on any athlete," the American said. "I understand the Greeks, that they wanted to see their favorite in the race."

There was even the renaissance of Allen Iverson, the player most often considered the ringleader of basketball's new generation of selfish and self-important players. Here, even in the disappointment of third place, he vaulted himself above many of his peers by his show of commitment.

"It's an honor to be selected for your country's national team, and it's an honor for life," he said after the semifinal loss to Argentina. "Even though we failed to get the gold, I feel good to be here and very special as a basketball player."

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