BEIJING | Give China the gold medal for Olympic strategizing.
China planned and worked hard over the past several years to catch up to the United States athletically by this summer’s Beijing Games, and its efforts paid off in dramatic fashion over the past two weeks with a surge of gold that even the long-dominant United States couldn’t match.
China had won 47 gold medals through the end of competition Thursday, already an increase of 15 over what its team won four years ago in the Athens Games and enough to provide an insurmountable lead in gold over the U.S.
The United States still is likely to win the overall medal count with a performance better than the one that earned the team 102 medals in Athens, the games’ best.
The U.S. team in Beijing already had won 102 medals, 31 of them gold, through Thursday and is guaranteed more in several events as the Olympics wind to a close over the weekend. China had won 89 total medals through Thursday.
U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth proclaimed the Beijing Games a resounding success for the American team.
“Clearly, this team has already outperformed Athens,” he said. “All in all, the citizens of the United States of America and indeed people around the world can be proud of this team.”
Still, the improvement made by China in the span of a few years is remarkable, and the results in Beijing represent a milestone: These Olympics mark the first time since the 1936 Berlin Games that the United States or the Soviet Union/Russia won’t stand atop the gold medal standings.
The U.S. team won 108 medals at the Barcelona Games in 1992, its best performance and a mark that remains attainable in Beijing.
On Saturday and Sunday, the United States will earn medals in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s volleyball and men’s water polo.
Gold medals in those events would close the gap with the host country, but would not give the United States enough to surpass China, which dominated less-glamorous sports like diving, table tennis and badminton.
“Overall, we look at this as one of the great successes in U.S. Olympic history,” said Jim Scherr, the USOC’s chief executive officer.
USOC officials since April have predicted the Chinese would win the overall medal count and that the Americans would enter Beijing as underdogs.
“We had anticipated that would be the case coming in, considering the resources they had placed in a very targeted manner to win the gold medal count,” Scherr said.
As expected, the United States dominated swimming. Michael Phelps’ eight golds in the first week accounted for more than 25 percent of the American total, and the basketball, volleyball and water polo teams were expected to give the U.S. total a boost.
The United States’ biggest disappointment came in track and field. For the first time in Summer Olympics history, it failed to win gold in any of the six sprint events. The women’s team failed to medal in the 100 meters despite having three of the eight competitors - reigning world champion Tyson Gay failed to make it out of the 100-meter semifinals, and both 4x100 relay teams were eliminated in the first round Thursday after dropping the baton on the exchange.
In the last several years, China tried to improve its track and swimming programs, but put an equal emphasis on dominating the medal count in other sports.
Entering Sunday, the Chinese were 7-for-7 in diving gold medals, with one event remaining. Both the men’s and women’s gymnastics squads won the team gold medal, and three men and three women won multiple medals.
But the Chinese also dominated in sports like table tennis and badminton, in which the Americans don’t compete well.
“We’ll learn from this,” Scherr said. “We’ll learn from the Chinese. But with the resources that we’ve had available, we’ve done remarkably well.”
The USOC executives expect China to remain a force on the Summer Olympics scene for years to come.
“We’re going to have to redouble our efforts in the next four years,” Ueberroth said.
Mr. Ueberroth expressed gratification in the fact that no American athlete has tested positive for doping. He guaranteed during a briefing four months ago in Chicago that the United States would field “a clean team” in China.
“We’re pleased with the way the team has behaved and that we’ve had a clean games,” he said.