US pip China to stay atop medal table as curtain falls on Games
- Heading into the last day of Tokyo 2020, the Americans found themselves in unfamiliar territory of second spot in the medals tally. They were still dominating in the volume of overall medals, but China had two more gold—the decisive column in arranging the order.
It needed the women's basketball team to deliver a seventh straight Olympic gold, track cyclist Jennifer Valente to overcome a dramatic crash and cross the finish line in front and the women's volleyball team to win a maiden title on the final day for USA to get to where it usually belongs—at the top. It was that close.
Heading into the last day of Tokyo 2020, the Americans found themselves in unfamiliar territory of second spot in the medals tally. They were still dominating in the volume of overall medals, but China had two more gold—the decisive column in arranging the order. Of the 13 pieces of the priceless yellow on offer on Sunday, USA earned three, China nil. It gave USA its 39th gold medal, edging past China by a solitary gold. It was that close. (FULL TOKYO 2020 COVERAGE)
USA finished with 39 gold and a total of 113 medals; China won 38 gold and 88 overall. It is the American contingent’s third straight finish at the top of the standings, and the seventh consecutive Olympics from where it has won the most medals. Save 2008 Beijing where China’s gold shone brighter, USA has topped the gold count at every Olympics from 1996 Atlanta.
Previously, it was never that close.
The dominance was dented in these unprecedented Games. In 2016 Rio, USA ended with 46 gold and 121 medals overall while China had 26 gold and 70 overall. In 2012 London, the Americans won 46 gold (104 overall); China had 38 gold in a total of 91.
Ironically, USA’s most productive disciplines at these Games—11 and seven gold to top the swimming and track and field charts, respectively—is also where its stranglehold on the tally eased. Of course, Simone Biles—the great gymnast looking to add to her stature in Tokyo—could have single-handedly tightened it again before she pulled out of four individual events to deal with the “twisties” (stress and loss of confidence while doing routines).
In Rio, USA won 32 athletics medals, including 13 gold. The overall tally in Tokyo was still a good 26, but the gold count dipped to seven. The men’s track squad didn’t have a single individual gold to flaunt for the first time in modern Olympic history (USA boycotted 1980 Moscow). The drought stretched till the final events when the 4x400m relay team quenched the thirst.
The USA had splashes of individual brilliance in the pool from the likes of Caeleb Dressel (five gold) and Katie Ledecky, who won the 800m and 1500m but had her iron grip loosened in the 400m and 200m by young Ariarne Titmus of Australia, which ended behind USA with nine gold and 20 medals in swimming; more than double from Rio. The sink came in the relays. Forget gold, American swimmers failed to win a medal for the first time while entering a relay event when Great Britain stunned all with the men's 4x200m freestyle victory.
In the mixed races of swimming and track and field, USA finished fifth in the 4x100m medley relay and won bronze in the 4x400m relay, behind Poland and Dominican Republic. China had the upper hand in mixed events across sport, winning three gold to USA’s none.
China, in contrast, continued to boss where it usually does. Diving alone gave the country seven gold, and so did weightlifting, both disciplines in which the next best nation was at a distant one gold. Chinese shooters clinched four gold, and so did their paddlers. Such is the nation’s might and expectation on the table that the only title it didn’t win in table tennis resulted in a tearful apology for failure by the mixed doubles team.
Who beat them? Japan.
The home contingent delivered a historic Games in more ways than one. Battling a year’s delay and uncertainty, ever-growing costs and the pressure to perform at home without local fans cheering on, Japan had its best Olympics ever with 27 gold and 58 total medals to finish third. The country had won 12 gold in Rio. Its previous highest haul was 16, at 1964 Tokyo and 2004 Athens.
Host nations generally tend to punch above the weight at every Olympics and Japan benefitted from the five sports that were added in Tokyo: skateboarding (three gold; five total), sport climbing (one silver and bronze), karate (one gold; three total), surfing (one silver and bronze) and baseball/softball (two gold).
It wasn’t just about the newbies. Japan won nine gold in judo and five in wrestling (four by women), took on powerhouse USA in the women’s basketball final for its first-ever medal and overcame China in table tennis.
That belied the situation in a country that saw considerable opposition to staging the Games amid the pandemic from its own people. “We believe our athletes' earnest spirit and all-out performance moved people,” Tsuyoshi Fukui, chef de mission for the Japanese team, said.