The USA Crushed Every Other Country in the Medal Count. Why Is America So Awesome at the Olympics?

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A Blog About the Olympic Games
Aug. 12 2012 6:03 PM

The USA Crushed Every Other Country in the Medal Count. Why Is America So Awesome at the Olympics?

Michael Phelps
Brendan Hansen, Matthew Grevers, Michael Phelps, and Nathan Adrian of the United States pose following the medal ceremony for the men's 4x100m medley on day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Olympics are over—noooooo!—and the United States led all nations in medals with 104, 17 more than second-place China. The London Games are the fifth straight Summer Olympics in which the USA has been at the top of the table. And after placing second in gold medals to the home-standing Chinese in 2008, the Americans regained the top spot with 46, the most for the United States in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1904. What’s the explanation for the USA’s Olympic dominance?

America is rich, which helps—the countries that are tops in GDP tend to rise to the top of the medal count. But from an athletic point of view, the USA’s success comes down to swimming and track and field. More than half of America’s medals this year—31 in swimming, 29 in track and field—came from those two sports. Since the modern Olympics began, the USA has won 520 swimming medals—342 more than its closest competitor, Australia—and 767 athletics medals, about four times as many as second place Great Britain.

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Swimming is especially important to America’s medal ambitions: There were 34 swimming events at the London Games and the USA medaled in 27 of them. When it comes to nurturing and training top-level swimmers, America is the best nation in the world. Elite swimmers here come up through a network of private swim clubs and matriculate at top college programs. USA Swimming, the group that oversees America’s Olympic swimmers, is well-organized and well-funded—it pays athletes $75,000 for each gold medal, plus an extra $50,000 for setting a new world record. Really, it would be a shock if the United States didn’t win so many swimming medals. And the gap between the USA and the rest of the world would be even bigger if foreign athletes didn’t also take advantage of the United States' swimming coaches and support infrastructure.

While American track athletes might not be as speedy as Usain Bolt or as hammer-tastic as Krisztián Pars, they’re still good enough to take home a decent haul. As long as the NBA and the NFL exist, American youth will spend their childhoods trying to run really fast, jump really high, and throw things really far. The big question is why China doesn’t do well in track and field. China only won five athletics medals this year, four in racewalking and one in women’s discus. If the Chinese start taking track as seriously as they take table tennis, America is in trouble.

To top things off, the United States is generally competent in all other sports. There are only three Summer Olympic events in which the USA has never medaled: badminton, team handball, and table tennis. And even with the stars-and-stripes-hating International Olympic Committee banishing baseball and softball from the games, there are still plenty of other sports that America almost always dominates, like basketball and volleyball.

It’s easy to say that American athletes are better than other countries’ athletes, or that America just cares more about sports than the rest of the world. But that’s not true. It’s pretty much just that there are a fat load of medals available in swimming and track. And lucky for the USA, the pool and the track are likely to be Olympic staples for as long as the games exist.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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