Team USA top the Olympic medal table. Or is it China? Or … San Marino?
As of this writing, the United States leads the medal count in the Tokyo Olympics. Or maybe it’s China. Or San Marino.
It all depends on how you choose to list the medals, and it’s surprisingly contentious. Let’s take the 2016 Olympics as an example. A British supporter would have preferred that the medals were listed in order of gold medals won – that put them in second place with 27 golds ahead of China in third 26. A fan of the Chinese would have been happier if credit was given to total medals, where their team finished with 70 – three ahead of Team GB’s 67. The media in the US tend to count total medals, whereas the rest of the world generally favors gold. Some would say it’s no coincidence that the US tends to do better in the latter method as it nearly always fields the largest number of athletes.
This year, China has jumped out to a healthy lead in the tally of gold medals, while the USA leads the way in total medals. We could always weigh gold medals more heavily than silver and bronze. Using a 5-3-1 system, Team USA lead, but not by much – 330 to 301. Third-place is up for grabs – the ROC have 201, Team GB have 185, and overachieving host Japan 188. But if you really want to measure depth of accomplishment, use The Sports Examiner’s system of awarding points for the first eight places, Team USA have a wide lead over China, while Team GB are sandwiched between the third-place ROC and fifth-place Japan. Australia is pretty well stuck in sixth.
All of these systems, of course, support the countries with a lot of resources, both in terms of people and currency. That might make us curious to take the medal count and divide it per capita.
At the time of writing (6 August), San Marino held the lead with roughly 88.4 medals per 1 million people. (That’s three medals for a population of 33,931.) Bermuda had roughly 16 medals per million; Grenada 8.9. The most efficient country with a population over 1 million was New Zealand at 3.9. Australia was 1.725, Team GB 0.85 and USA at just 0.3. Suddenly China, at 0.06, doesn’t look quite as impressive.
US supporters, though, may question why all sports are created equal. China is really good at badminton, diving, gymnastics, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting, and their athletes will take home at least 53 medals from those six sports alone. The USA is really good at basketball, softball, women’s water polo and women’s soccer, good for five medals. On the other hand, the USA will take at least 53 medals in two sports: swimming and athletics, which we call track and field.
But that doesn’t really change much. The top countries have all medaled in 20-25 sports, depending on how you parse the word sport – whether road and track cycling are different sports, or open-water swimming and pool swimming.
Much more difficult to figure is the roles of different countries in developing athletes. One third of San Marino’s medals – in other words, one of three – came from a University of Michigan wrestler. A lot of skateboarders live and train in the US from when they are young due to the lucrative professional circuit. Similarly, many track and field medalists from “other” countries perfected their craft in the highly competitive US college system, where some universities spend tens of millions of dollars on their athletic departments (whether that money would be better spent on academics is a whole other question).
For those of us who have been to the Olympics though – I have been fortunate enough to cover four for USA Today – the most important measure is whose country’s supporters are the most fun.
So with that, and I say this as an American, congratulations to Australia, the winners in this and every Olympics.
Most gold medals Tokyo Olympics: US, China totals hinge on final day
The U.S. leads the overall medal count, but China has a chance to capture the golden honor.
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The U.S. is running away with the total medal count in Tokyo, but the bragging rights for most golds will come down to the final day. The U.S. trails China by two, with the women’s basketball final, women’s volleyball final, two boxing matches and a few other opportunities on the docket.
Friday night and Saturday morning offered mixed results. The men’s basketball team and women’s water polo squad both won gold (more on those below), as did the men’s and women’s 4 x 400-meter relay teams in the morning track session.
But there were other very close calls. The baseball team lost the gold-medal match 2–0 to Japan. It was 1–0 until Japan tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. And the U.S. did get the tying run to the plate in the ninth before falling short.
Kareem Elgazzar/USA TODAY Sports
Equestrian featured an even closer call, where the U.S. and Sweden went to a jump off in the team jumping final. Sweden won by 1.3 seconds, sending the U.S. (including Jessica Springsteen) to the silver medal step on the podium. And Kyle Snyder, a 2016 Olympic champion wrestler, lost his rubber match against the ROC’s Abdulrashid Sadulaev, a rivalry I mentioned in Friday’s wrestling round-up.
The totals look like very big numbers (more than 100 medals!), but there have been countless reminders throughout these Olympics that they are made up of many tiny margins. A half second here or a tenth of a point there. The close games and matches can give you some extra appreciation on just how tough it is to win a gold medal.
Track and field
In Friday morning’s session (U.S. time), shortly after my Friday newsletter went out, Allyson Felix won bronze in the 400-meter for her 10th career Olympic medal. That tied her with Carl Lewis for the most lifetime medals by a U.S. track and field athlete. On Saturday she passed Lewis, winning gold as part of a stacked 4 x 400-meter relay team.
And they smoked everyone.
If you have followed the Olympics, you have probably heard plenty about Felix’s story. But to recap: Tokyo was her fifth Olympics. She won silver in the 200 meters in Athens back in 2004. She is now 35, and competing in the Olympics for the first time since giving birth to her daughter in 2018. In May 2019, she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about how Nike wanted to pay her 70% less after childbirth and wouldn’t guarantee her deal if her performance slipped. She then signed with Athleta (and Nike later revised its policy).
She finished her Olympic career with seven golds, three silvers and a bronze. I don’t want to take anything away from Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu, who were all great in these Olympics and deserve plenty of credit as well, but Felix’s career is worth celebrating. Many doubted that she’d make it back to the Olympics—she got there and gave us one last great show.
Molly Seidel very quickly moved herself onto my list of favorite athletes in Tokyo. The American finished third in the women’s marathon, despite the little fact that it was only the third marathon of her career. Seriously. Her first marathon was the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials, in which she finished second. Then she ran another one in October. Then she finished third at the Olympics, in a tough race, given the heat and humidity.
After the race, she gave this quote: “I try not to have too many expectations. It is just to go out, stick your nose where it doesn’t belong and try and make some people angry. My goal today was just to go in and for people to think, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’ ”
She then cried saying hi to her family and told them to drink a beer for her.
I also enjoyed seeing what her warm-up run looked like on Strava.
After Canada beat the USWNT to reach the women’s soccer gold-medal game, the team went on to win Olympic gold for the first time.
Sweden scored first, in the 34th minute, and Canada tied it up at 1-1 with a penalty kick in the 67th minute. That remained the score through extra time, until Canada won in a penalty shootout. Sweden’s Caroline Seger had a shot that could have won the game on the fifth attempt, but she booted it over the crossbar. Canada won in six shots apiece, thanks to three straight Sweden misses, with Julia Grosso’s shot clinching the gold medal.
While You Were Sleeping
It was more difficult than many U.S. basketball fans had wanted or expected, but the 2020 team found its way to the top of the medal podium after all. The U.S. won its fourth straight Olympic gold, beating France 87–82 behind 29 points from Kevin Durant.
Remember that this tournament started with a loss to France, a team with five NBA players, including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The U.S. started out slowly in the rematch, as it did in several games this tournament, missing its first seven three-pointers and falling behind 10–4. But as he did so consistently this tournament, Durant proved himself the best player in Tokyo. Jayson Tatum scored 19 and others on the team contributed enough.
Team USA led by five at halftime, and stretched the lead to 14 in the third quarter. France hung around and tightened things up, but at no point in the second half did it ever really feel like the U.S. had lost control of the game.
A few cool story lines after the win: JaVale McGee joins his mom Pamela as a gold medalist, after she won one in basketball in 1984. Jrue Holiday joins his wife Lauren, who won two gold medals in soccer in 2008 and ’12. Holiday and Khris Middleton are also the first teammates to win Olympic gold and an NBA title in the same summer since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in ’92. And the Miami Heat will hang a banner for Bam Adebayo, as they’ve done for other players who’ve won gold, which is a cool thing I didn’t know about.
The U.S. women’s water polo team is a dynasty, and the team added its third straight Olympic gold medal to a long list of accolades. Alys Williams opened the scoring 27 seconds into the game, and the team never looked back. The U.S. won the third quarter 5–0 to stretch its lead to 12–4 and essentially put the game out of reach. The final was 14–5, as Spain was nearly kept off the board for the entire second half.
The U.S. has medaled in every Olympics since women’s water polo was added in 2000. In addition the three straight Olympic golds, the team has won the last three world championships (2015, ’17, ’19), the last three world cups (’10, ’14, ’18) and the last seven world leagues (’14, ’15, ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19, ’20). They are one of the United States’s most dominant teams in any sport right now.
Maggie Steffens and Maddie Musselman led the team with 18 goals in seven games, six of them wins. Steffens won her third gold medal and, earlier in the tournament, she surpassed Italy’s Tania Di Mario to become the sport’s all-time leading scorer in the Olympics. And Ashleigh Johnson was a star in goal.
And, as is tradition, coach Adam Krikorian got a dip in the pool, in lieu of a Gatorade bath.
The U.S. has gone gold-gold in golf, with Nelly Korda following up Xander Schauffele’s win with one of her own. She blitzed the rest of the field in Round 2 to build a four-shot lead, but the final round had a little more drama. A double-bogey on the seventh hole dropped Korda into a tie for first, but she rebounded with three straight birdies. A weather delay also held up the end of the round, but she closed it out with six pars on the final holes to preserve a one-stroke win over Japan’s Mone Inami. New Zealand’s Lydia Ko won bronze, to go along with her silver medal from Rio.
It’s been a big summer for the 23-year-old Korda, who won her first major and climbed to No. 1 in the world rankings before the Olympics. And her sister Jessica shot a 64, the lowest score anyone carded in the final round, to finish tied for 15th place.
Snapshots from Tokyo
I’ve been passing along the daily photo gallery from SI’s photographers in Tokyo. Today our photo staff also put together a gallery with SI photos of some of the greatest Olympians throughout the years.
Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated
What to Watch
Saturday night and Sunday morning, all times ET.
Marathon: The men’s race starts at 6:00 p.m. Saturday. The U.S.’s Galen Rupp won a bronze medal in 2016.
Cycling: Races begin at 9:00 p.m. Saturday. Medal races in the women’s sprint, men’s keirin and women’s omnium points start at 10:45 p.m. Saturday.
Rhythmic gymnastics: The group all-around final starts at 10:00 p.m. Saturday.
Water Polo: The U.S. men play against Croatia in a game to determine fifth place at 10:00 p.m. Saturday. Greece plays against Serbia in the men’s gold-medal game at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
Basketball: The U.S. plays against Japan in the women’s gold-medal game at 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
Volleyball: The U.S. plays against Brazil in the women’s gold-medal match at 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
Boxing: Four gold-medal bouts start at 1:00 a.m. Sunday. For the U.S., Keyshawn Davis fights Cuban Andy Cruz at 1:15 a.m. and Richard Torrez Jr. fights Uzbekistan’s Bakhodir Jalolov at 2:15 a.m.
Handball: The ROC plays against France in the women’s gold-medal match at 2:00 a.m. Sunday.
Closing Ceremony: It’s all over! You can watch the Closing Ceremony live at 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday on Peacock or wait to see it on NBC at 8:00 p.m. The U.S. has chosen javelin thrower Kara Winger to be the country’s flag-bearer.
Caz’s Medal Picks
Every day Brian Cazeneuve will give us a few medal predictions for some upcoming events.
Gold: Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya)
Silver: Sisay Lemma (Ethiopia)
Bronze: Lawrence Cherono (Kenya)
Kipchoge set the world record of 2:01:39 in Berlin in 2018. The next year in Vienna, he ran under two hours for the marathon distance during a run with pacesetters rather than a race against competitors. It did not count for record purposes.
This would be the seventh straight Olympic title for the U.S. It is Japan’s first medal in basketball for either women or men.
Bronze: South Korea
U.S. women have won five medals in women’s indoor volleyball, but never gold. Their head coach, Karch Kiraly, won two gold medals indoors in 1984 and ’88, and another on the beach, in ’96.
Water Polo, men’s
Greece has never won an Olympic medal in men’s water polo. Including its time as part of Yugoslavia, Serbia has won 12. Hungary leads all teams with 15.
• Pat Forde writes that Kevin Durant is the greatest Team USA men’s basketball player ever.
• Chris Mannix wrote about the difficult journey the team took to win gold.
• Greg Bishop was at the pool for the U.S. water polo domination.
• Stephanie Apstein wrote about kayaker Saúl Craviotto, who has won four Olympic medals … but it’s his cooking skills that get him stopped in the streets.
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Programming note: I’ll have my usual newsletter on Sunday morning to recap the final night of action, and then I’ll be back on Monday morning to wrap up the entire Olympics. Just in case you were worried tomorrow was the last you’d hear from me.
Thanks for reading.
U.S. Drifts Back to the Pack in Olympic Medal Count
TOKYO — The Summer Games forced Olympians to prepare for dastardly heat and pandemic protocols that added stress and complicated the normal rigors of the run-up.
The Americans’ efforts have produced results that might be the envy of the world but have fallen short of their recent lofty standards.
Having won 108 medals through Saturday, and with only a few medals to be awarded on Sunday, the U.S. Olympic Team will not equal its haul of 121 medals in 2016. Forty-six of them were gold, two fewer than the mark the Chinese set for gold medals in 2008 in Beijing. The U.S. team won 104 medals in 2012 and 112 in 2008.
The U.S. has won the gold medal race in the last two Olympics but trails China 38-36 in these Games. But the team has a chance to catch up because it is a gold medal contender in several competitions on Sunday.