Image: Tyson Gay
OLIVIER MORIN  /  AFP/Getty Images
Sprinter Tyson Gay of the U.S. is part of a track and field team that has to have a excellent perfomance at the Beijing Games to win the total medal count.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/15/2008 4:17:41 AM ET 2008-08-15T08:17:41
OPINION

Forget running like the wind. The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team has got to run like it’s being chased by an ex-spouse’s attorney, run like you're chasing the guy who just snatched your mom’s purse, run like Bill Gates’ investment portfolio is waiting for the first person to cross the finish line.

They have to run like they’ve never run before. They also have to throw and jump and hurdle and vault out of their skins. They have to because they are America’s last hope of snatching the gold-medal count from their Chinese hosts and maintaining their standing as champions of the Olympic world.

Coming into these games, the popular call among the analysts was that China would win the gold-medal race and maybe the overall medal count. They’re on their home turf, have three times the population of any other sports power and have had their sights set on these games for seven years. That’s a formula for victory, and there’s no question that the Chinese, who didn’t even compete in the Olympics until 1984, are on the verge of becoming the world’s dominant athletic power.

The most credible scientific analyst, Dan Johnson, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, predicted that China would win the race for most gold medals, 44 to 38, but the United States would come out first overall with 103 medals, which is about the total they’ve maintained for the past several Olympiads. Johnson developed an economic model for predicting Olympic winners in 1999 and has been pretty much right on the money with his predictions.

But predictions aren’t reality, as anyone who reads the sports pages knows. Games aren’t won on paper or circuit boards. They’re won in the arena.

The United States is still in good position to win the overall medal count, which is the true sign of a team’s depth and overall excellence. You win that race, and most national Olympic organizations will concede that you’ve won the Olympics.

What the average fan thinks is a different matter. Here in China, the media is listing teams by gold medals won for the very excellent reason that that allows them to put China on top of the standings. On our website, we’re going with total medals, which puts the United States on top. The U.S. Olympic Committee has always kept score the same way.

But we’ve got to be honest here. The way to establish total superiority is to win the gold and the total. And even with China’s early lead in the gold-medal chase, the race is far from over.

There are 302 gold medals awarded in the Games in 28 sports. America picks them up in a lot of places – beach volleyball, women’s team sports, sailing, fencing, rowing and more. But the big hauls always come in two places. During the first week, “The Star Spangled Banner” is worn out at the swimming pool. During the second week, the recording gets a serious workout at the track.

Slideshow: Emotional moments The United States dominates the sprints and relays and hurdles from 100 meters to 400 meters and then checks out. Running any farther than a quarter mile is beyond them. They also have some great chances in men’s shot put, the high jump, pole vault and multi-sports events – the decathlon for men and heptathlon for women.

In their events, they could win as many as 19 gold medals. China has a shot at only two -- the men’s 110-meter hurdles and the women’s marathon. Realistically, the Americans won’t win them all. Sports doesn’t work that way. But they had better win as many as they can.

Nice-tries aren’t going to get it done for them. Silver and bronze won’t do it, either. If they take 15 gold medals and give China two, it’s a net gain of 13 and a chance to win the Games. At the very least, they’ve got to sweep up a dozen medals to give the rest of the team a chance to make up the difference in team sports as well as rowing and sailing and various forms of physical combat.

But overall supremacy hangs on the track and field team. The United States has already left some gold medals on the table. Katie Hoff arrived at the Water Cube with a chance to win five and realistic hopes to win one or two. She won none. The Williams sisters looked like a lock to win gold and maybe gold and silver in tennis, and both have been sent packing. Michael Phelps took care of his business – as of Friday afternoon, he had accounted for six of his country’s 14 total gold medals – but not every swimmer who had a chance to win gold did. They contributed to the overall count, so they’re hardly losers. But they didn’t add to the strategic gold reserve.

That’s now up to America’s runners and jumpers and vaulters and throwers. They’re like the anchor leg in a 17-day relay, and they’re getting the baton now. They had better run with it.

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