The story line was in place even before they filled the pool inside the Water Cube. This was always going to be China’s Olympics to win, and there wasn’t a lot the United States or anybody else could do about it.
The message didn’t come from the Chinese, though they had to have a pretty good idea what was coming. They didn’t spend billions on the magnificent structures where these games are being staged with the idea of coming in second in the medal standings.
No, it was the American side playing the game of lowered expectations. Better for those at home to understand going in that these games might be tough than have them look up midway through the Olympics and wonder what in the name of Michael Phelps is going on.
Which is precisely what many have to be wondering about now.
Lowered expectations are one thing. Lowered performances are another.
Sure, Phelps cleaned up in the pool and his teammates added to the swimming haul. That’s almost expected, because Americans have dominated swimming at most Olympics since Johnny Weissmuller won five gold medals in the 1920s.
And U.S. athletes are doing a fine job of finishing second and third. Already, 50 of them have spent a few Olympic moments in Beijing standing on podiums listening to the national anthems of other countries.
But the golds? Gone to China, nearly every one. Well, not quite, though it may seem that way to everyone not watching American television. Althoguh NBC has spent much of its prime-time glorifying all things Phelps, the host country has been busy collecting the most prized medals by the handful.
(NBC is a partner in the joint venture that runs msnbc.com.)
In just 10 days, the Chinese have not only passed the total number of golds (32) they won four years ago, but also the total number (36) won by the United States in Athens. As of Monday night they had 39 golds, closing in on the 44 won by the U.S. in 1996 in Atlanta. The U.S. won 83 golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but those were boycotted by the Soviet Union and its allies.
China’s success is no surprise. The country’s Project 119 program was designed to match that many total medals at these games, and China has spared no resources in making sure that happens at home in Beijing.
What is a bit surprising is that the U.S. lags so far behind in a gold-medal race that figured to be competitive, if nothing else. The Olympic powerhouse that topped the gold medal count the last three Olympics has a grand total of 22, and that’s after all the swimming that isn’t synchronized has ended.
Take away the eight won by Phelps and things really look dismal.
“We were trying to lay expectations down that we’ve seen this coming for a couple of years and certainly didn’t want anyone to be shocked,” U.S. Olympic official Steve Roush said, referring to the lopsided medal tally. “Some felt maybe we were sandbagging. I wish we were.”
Ask why the Chinese are dominating the gold-medal count while the U.S. struggles to pick up a gold here and there, and you hear the usual things. The home team always gets a boost from the Olympics, China has a sports school program that trains athletes from a young age, and the hosts have targeted certain sports (weightlifting, shooting, badminton) to cash in on.
Left unsaid is that the U.S. also identifies athletes at a young age, spends hundreds of millions of dollars to train them, and throws in a nice bonus if they win gold. And no country has done anything more to make their athletes feel at home in China than the Americans.
They took over a local university so the 600 athletes could train and live in comfort, imported tons of their favorite food, provided them with everything from masseuses to sports psychologists, and even taught them the words to the national anthem, just in case.
They still aren’t winning, something the Chinese are beginning to notice.
“Track and field competitions were already in the third day and so far ’Uncle Sam’ hasn’t taken one gold,” the nation’s biggest sports newspaper, the Titan Sports Weekly, said Monday.
That changed when Stephanie Brown Trafton won the women’s discus and the American men swept the 400 hurdles. U.S. officials hold out hope for a strong final push in track, but Tyson Gay didn’t even qualify for the 100-meter final, what was supposed to be an All-Star shot put trio flopped, and there’s not a Carl Lewis anywhere in sight.
“I am surprised we haven’t won more gold,” Brown Trafton said. “But you know what? I hope this sets a trend.”
Much to NBC’s horror, there’s not a lot left out there to even make it close, unless IOC officials rewrite the rules and give the U.S. credit for all of the 12 gold medals that will surely hang around the neck of the U.S. men’s basketball team on Sunday.
Purists will insist that none of this matters and that the Olympics are all about individuals and teams doing their best for Olympic glory. They’ll say just competing means more than anything.
That, of course, is nonsense.
Bragging rights by countries have been an Olympic staple since the inception of the modern games in 1896. They were especially fun — even important — to grab during the Cold War, where the medal haul often served as a proxy for real world events.
The world has changed, but that hasn’t.
And with time beginning to run out in these games, the U.S. isn’t finding a lot to brag about.