LONDON — Four days into the Games of the XXX Olympiad the citizenry already had its knickers in a twist over Her Majesty’s athletes failing to finish atop the podium. The Georgians, Hungarians and Kazakhs had won gold medals but the British, who’d pumped $14 billion that they couldn’t afford into this global tea party, were being left to swoon over silver and babble about bronze. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” The Daily Telegraph advised in its banner headline on Wednesday.
After the first gold came that morning from two women rowing backward on Dorney Lake out in pastoral Eton, the UK let out a collective roar of exultation and a whoosh of relief. The hosts wouldn’t be blanked where it mattered most, as their Canadian cousins were in 1976. Brad Wiggins — Wiggo to his mates — chipped in another from his bike and all was well for Team GB. As their followers like to say, the British excel in all sports in which one competes while sitting down. Indeed, 18 of their 25 have come in rowing, cycling, equestrian and slalom canoe, with sailing still on the horizon.
As the Games head into their final week on Sunday, Britain was third in the overall count behind the Americans and Chinese, which is higher than it thought it would be. The British, understated by nature, were suitably conservative in their medal predictions, figuring on 55, which would be only eight more than they earned in Beijing four years ago despite having invested an estimated 265 million pounds in their athletes over the last quadrennium.
If 55 medals put them fourth behind the Russians, that would be a jolly good showing indeed. After the hosts won only four golds the last time they staged the Games in 1948, anything in double digits would be a massive improvement.
Managing expectations is the unofficial sport around Olympus. The Chinese, who won the golden race for the first time with 51 in 2008, were predicting modestly that they hoped to be in the top three here. And the Americans weren’t predicting anything at all. Though they’ve topped the table ever since 1996 and collected 110 last time, the Yanks’ overall primacy figured to be in jeopardy.
So far, thanks to the usual motherlode from swimming (16 golds, 30 overall), they rank first with 54, one more than the Chinese. To finish first they’ll need to cash their bets in track and field, where the USATF is looking for a robust 30 medals, and in the team sports. They’ll need that to counter what China still figures to collect in gymnastics, diving, table tennis, and taekwondo.
As they usually do, the Chinese have spread their bets across multiple tables, as if they were playing in a Macau casino. Their haul has come from 13 sports, in which the US was shut out in five — badminton, fencing, trampoline, table tennis, and weightlifting. So the Yanks need to get a maximum harvest from their specialties and thus far they’ve done that.
Despite all the uproar over over Ye Shiwen’s monster swims in the individual medleys, the Chinese only won nine medals in the pool. The Americans, thanks to Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte, earned nearly twice as many just in golds. Their dominance in the sport has been so well established that Katie Ledecky, a 15-year-old swimming in her first international meet can destroy a world record that has stood for 23 years and leave the defending champion awash in her suds and nobody raises an eyebrow.
As China has climbed the medal ladder — it won only 50 in 1996 — the Middle Kingdom has been on the defensive over doping, age manipulation and, after the women’s badminton fiasco, match fixing. After suspicions that their 2008 gold-medal women’s gymnastics team included underage girls, they brought over the big sisters this time, four 20-year-olds who couldn’t make the team podium.
What usually determines the winner in the overall count is fewer near-misses and the Americans already have had a bunch. Taylor Phinney finished fourth in both men’s road races. The men’s eight and women’s pair missed bronzes by a combined half-second. Aly Raisman lost the all-around bronze in a tiebreaker. Franklin was touched out by 1/100th in the 200-meter freestyle and Phelps missed medaling for the first time since his first race in 2000.
Not that there weren’t some compensating surprises. Danell Leyva, who was 19th after two rotations, leaped up to bronze in the all-around. Marti Malloy got one in judo. Nathan Adrian won the 100-freestyle in swimming, which no Yank had done since Matt Biondi in 1988.
The US team did what it needed to do in the first week, mining its customary motherlode from the natatorium. Now the medals have to come from where they always have — the stadium and the team sports, where the Chinese aren’t particularly competitive.
There’s a good chance that the Americans can come close to what they pulled off in Beijing, where they won nine team medals, five of them gold. Having baseball and softball dropped from the program will cost the US a couple but both basketball teams will be favored again.
There’ll also be more help from familiar corners. The tennis players could extract another trio of medals from Wimbledon where Serena Williams pulled off a Wimbledon reprise on Saturday. There should be couple on horseback and two more from the sandbox inside Horse Guards Parade. But what should keep the Americans ahead of the pack are their sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers and decathletes, who should be good for a couple of dozen as long as they don’t play pick-up-sticks in the relays.