London Olympics 2012: Can USA top the medal table?

The 2012 Summer Olympics should again see China win the most golds and the US win the most medals overall. The split points to the two countries' different Olympic aims.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
A diver prepares to take part in a training session at the Aquatics Centre before the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games Thursday.

From Friday's opening ceremonies to the look of the venues, London might be trying to position itself as Beijing's opposite – an Olympic Games unafraid of modesty and inclusion. But from the perspective of the medal table, London is likely to look a lot like China.

The same forces at work four years ago are likely to shape the medal table over the next 17 days, too:

  • China will continue to reap the benefit of its massive spending ahead of the 2008 Games, probably winning the gold medal count.
  • Britain, which went on a sport spending binge of its own when it won the 2012 Games, will probably match its strong showing in Beijing, where it finished fourth in the gold medal and overall medal counts.
  • Russia, once locked in its superpower struggle with the US for Olympic supremacy, will probably confirm that it can no longer match such heady achievements, remaining a distant third.

Amid these rising and falling Olympic fortunes charted during the past two Summer Games, the United States remains the historical constant, once again likely to win the overall medal count and slot in behind China in the gold medal count.

Whether this hierarchy becomes the new normal won't be clear until the Olympics in Rio and perhaps not until 2020, when the echo from Beijing dies out, and China will have to decide whether to continue its high spending or take its foot off the Olympic gas. For now, the medal table will bear witness to the two different ways that China and the US target Olympic glory.    

In short, the US targets overall excellence, trying to qualify as many athletes as possible. China targets winning, focusing a larger share of its efforts on athletes who can take gold. This was clear in the Beijing medal table.

Before Beijing, gold medals and overall medals were strongly correlated. In other words, the team that won the most gold medals almost always also won the most medals overall. Only once between the end of World War I and the Beijing Olympics (in 1964) did one team win the gold medal table (US) and another win the overall medal race (USSR). Now, it is likely to happen for the second Olympics running.

In Beijing, the US won 110 medals to China's 100. But more than one half of China's medals (51) were gold. It was only the third time that had happened in Summer Olympic history.

And as in 2008, the US and China aren't likely to see much of each other. The US makes its mark in swimming and track and field – two sports in which China does poorly. China, meanwhile, spreads its golds over events far from US view – such as weightlifting, shooting, table tennis, and badminton – in addition to gymnastics and diving.

What US officials like about the current team is it mix of new and old. "About half the team has been to the Olympic Games before," said Alan Ashby, chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee. "We've got great balance."

For the host nation, this Olympics is about managing expectations. British officials say they laid down a marker with their fourth-pace finish in Beijing, with 19 golds and 47 overall medals. "Our aspiration is to match that," said Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, at a press conference. "But it will be incredibly hard."

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