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. 

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Qui Bo of China dives during the men's 10-meter platform diving preliminaries at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London Friday. By the way, China is really, really good at diving.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

It is the invisible Olympic rivalry.

London 2012 has left no doubt that, when it comes to the race to top the medal table, there are two nations and then everyone else. But where, exactly, is China winning all those medals? 

How many table-tennis medals can you win in a single Olympics, after all?

And that is the thing about the Summer Olympics: No matter where you look, there is always another Olympics going on somewhere else. 

How many people, for example, are aware that 48 medals have been handed out in sprint canoeing and kayaking during the past six days? Or that the British have won five medals in sailing with Ben Ainslie winning his fourth gold in a row? Or that Colombia has emerged as a BMX powerhouse?

The Olympic Games are plural, and what they are is always determined by where you look.

It is easy for Americans, in particular, to be myopic. No other nation gets such a large share of its medals from so few sports. As of Saturday afternoon, 59 percent of America's 95 medals came from swimming (31) and track and field (26). Of the nations that have won at least 30 medals, no other has won more than half of their medals in two sports.

China, in particular, spreads out its medal totals. Its top two sports – swimming (10) and diving (9) – account for only 23 percent of its 82 overall medals.

That means China is winning its medals in places where Americans aren't looking. America has won seven medals or more in only its two big sports. China has done it in six: swimming, diving, badminton, gymnastics, shooting, and weightlifting.   

This the danger of the Olympics. They are too much. No one network can chronicle all that they are. Frankly, NBC is just doing what every other national broadcasting network does. The difference is that America has so many medalists, that NBC can make its entire three-hour prime show time a USA-only zone.

But, of course, just because America isn't good at something doesn't mean it isn't fabulously entertaining. It is an Olympic credo as much as faster, higher, stronger: No matter what you are watching, you are missing at least three other amazing things happening somewhere else at the same time.

Some of it's unusual to the American eye

For example, did you see the rhythmic gymnastics?

To an American, perhaps, all the balls and clubs can at first appear a bit odd. It's like asking Usain Bolt to juggle while running the 100 meters.

But then look at what they do with them.    

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.

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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