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Explained: How, despite dipping gold count, the US pipped China in tightest Olympics medal race ever

The newest on the list of gold-winning nations are Qatar, Bermuda and the Philippines.

Written by Tushar Bhaduri , Shahid Judge , Gaurav Bhatt , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 14, 2021 3:13:41 pm
The Olympic Stadium ahead. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/File Photo)

In a final day swoop at Tokyo 2020, the United States earned the bragging rights of Tokyo 2020 by moving ahead of China on the medal table. The three golds that they clinched on Sunday just put their noses in front at the finish line, 39-38. The one in women’s basketball may have been on expected lines, but the women’s volleyball team winning their first-ever gold drew them level, and Jennifer Valente’s cycling gold proved to be the clincher. The one-medal gap between the top two is the closest ever. Before Tokyo, it was at Athens 2004 that the USA with 36 gold and China with 32 gold were involved in a tight race.

Top 10 countries at Tokyo Olympics 2021. (Photo: Official Olympics website)

The other interesting aspect of the tally was the emergence of first-time medal winners. In what is the largest list of medal-winning countries at any Games, 93 different nations earned a podium finish. The number of gold-winning nations at an edition — 63 — also broke the record of 59 set at Rio 2016.

Just like in Rio, where Jordan, Kosovo and Fiji medalled for the first time, the Tokyo Games ended with three new countries joining the medal table – San Marino, Turkmenistan and Burkina Faso. The newest on the list of gold-winning nations are Qatar, Bermuda and the Philippines.

The final tally seemed unlikely with just a few days left when China had a significant lead in the gold medal count. Over the last several editions, the top position on the gold medal table has been the preserve of the USA or China. In fact, the last Games where a third nation topped the standings was Barcelona 1992, with the ‘Unified Team’ of the erstwhile Soviet Union states securing the most gold medals.

Fluctuating fortunes

The US’s gold medal count of 39 this time is down from the 46 golds they won at Rio 2016 and London 2012 each. China, which dominated on home turf in Beijing 2008 with 48 gold, won 26 gold in Rio 2016, just one behind Great Britain who finished second. In Tokyo though, the Chinese have equalled the gold medal haul they achieved in London 2012.

The American haul this term dropped in their traditional strongholds like swimming (16 in Rio, 11 in Tokyo), athletics (13 in 2016 and seven now) and gymnastics (four and two). The retirement of Michael Phelps and the withdrawal of Simone Biles affected the tally. But the Americans still managed to gain new strides in other events – wrestling, shooting, golf, fencing, and the new 3×3 basketball and surfing events.

China meanwhile improved their already impressive performance in weightlifting (seven gold medals this time compared to five in Rio) while matching the seven they won in diving from five years ago. Shooting was a successful event, as they clinched four gold, compared to the solitary gold Zhang Mengxue won in the 10m air pistol event in Rio.

They also tripled their gold medal in swimming to three, but couldn’t defend their women’s volleyball title.

 New horizons

The Americans won gold in Tokyo in several events not always considered their strengths. Lee Keifer won an individual foil gold in fencing, Nevin Harrison won in canoeing while Anastasija Zolotic triumphed in taekwondo’s featherweight class.

For China, gymnastics was a big success with four gold medals (including trampoline), while in Rio they failed to win a single gold medal. They also secured top spots on the podium in sports like canoeing, fencing, rowing, sailing and cycling.

India’s new high

With their best-ever tally (one gold, two silver, four bronze), India finished 48th on the table — their highest position since the 1980 Moscow Olympics which was boycotted by 66 countries because of the Soviet-Afghan War. India finished 23rd in Russia, having won just the men’s hockey gold. In fact, the 48th position in Tokyo is India’s best finish at any Olympics where they won more than two medals (they were ranked 26th with a gold and bronze at Helsinki 1952).

Golden sunrise in Japan

Japan finished third – their best – in the overall medal table for the third time (after Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964). The 58 medals they won – 27 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze – in 2021 make this their most successful edition.

A stellar performance in judo helped the hosts in the overall ranking. In London, Japan won one gold medal in the sport and three in Rio. Over the 15 events in Judo this past fortnight, they won nine gold, two silver and a bronze.

The Japanese also dominated the new skateboarding event, winning three of the four gold medals on offer. They also maximised the return of baseball and softball to the Games’ line-up, taking both gold medals.

India ranked 48 with 7 medals

Different name, similar haul

Since the end of the Cold War, this was the sixth Olympic Games where ‘Russia’ competed as a country. But they could not use their name, flag or anthem based on International Olympic Committee (IOC) sanctions due to the country’s infamous doping scandal in 2014. Instead, the contingent went by the name Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

This was also the second smallest contingent from the country, 333 compared to the 282 that travelled to Rio.

In terms of the total number of medals won in Tokyo, the 71 (20 gold, 28 silver and 23 bronze) put ROC third on the leaderboard. But they were fifth based on gold medals – the official standard – behind the USA, China, Japan and Great Britain.

This was a better performance from the ROC compared to the 19 golds each in London and Rio. The gold medal in the women’s team gymnastics event – their first ever as Russia – made the difference.

The Olympic ‘Ashes’

A rivalry that transcends sports, Great Britain again pipped the Australians in the gold medal tally, 22 to 17 to finish fourth and sixth respectively in the overall tally, though the latter had a much better showing this time – they won just eight golds in Rio.

The Australians, courtesy Ariarne Titmus’ double gold over USA’s Katie Ledecky, won nine golds in swimming compared to the three from Rio. Meanwhile, the Brits continued dominating the cycling event like only the Brits can, winning six gold, four silver and two bronze medals just as they did five years ago.

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