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How the U.S. Edged China in Total Gold Medals with Three Wins on the Final Day

It came down to the last night of competition and was determined by the slimmest of margins.
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The Olympics began on Tuesday, July 20 with a softball game between Australia and Japan, and they ended in the middle of the night with a water polo match between Serbia and Greece. Depending on your time zone, of course. The schedule included hundreds of countries, thousands of athletes and 339 events across dozens of sports. They’re all behind us now.

We saw some incredible achievements, both by individuals and teams. We marveled at many of the athletes, from the first man to cross the finish line in the 100 meters, to the last one to complete the longest race walk, to the women who broke boundaries.

It is an honor just to compete, but we can see in the faces of the victors how much it means to win. Not just to win for one’s self or one’s team, but for one’s country, as is made clear when we see how many athletes celebrate with their flags.

To that end, we track the medal count. The U.S. had cliched the overall count days ago. But, as I set up the stakes on Saturday morning, Team USA headed into the final day of competition trailing China by two gold medals.

In the end, the U.S. did it, with three gold medals on the final night nudging the Americans past China.

This is a true group achievement. Those 39 gold medals represent the sum of contributions from Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel, Suni Lee, Sydney McLaughlin, Athing Mu, Gable Steveson, Breanna Stewart, Kevin Durant, Maggie Steffens, April Ross, Xander Schauffele, Lee Kiefer, Nevin Harrison and many, many others because I can’t include them all right here. Not to mention their coaches, trainers, support systems and families—including so many people who were with them for a lifetime of hard work and then weren’t able to be there in Tokyo because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simply reaching the Olympics is not simple at all. One medal, of any color, is an almost unfathomable achievement to most regular people. The U.S. sent a team to Tokyo that brought home more golds, more silvers, more bronzes and more total medals than any other country on earth.

It came down to the last night of competition and was determined by the slimmest of margins. Here’s how the last three gold medals were won.

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While You Were Sleeping

Women’s basketball

This team has been the U.S.’s most dominant over the last 25 years, and it’s no contest. The U.S. didn’t just win its seventh straight gold medal, tying an Olympic record for team sports, it finished off its seventh straight undefeated Olympics. That’s 55 straight games, dating back to 1992.

None of the gold-medal games have even finished with a margin of victory in the single digits.

The team raced out to a 10–2 lead early, and then Japan actually kept it close in the second quarter until the U.S. pulled away. I won’t get into too many details on the play-by-play. It was never in doubt. The U.S. got contributions from several of the team’s stars, gave some playing time to the reserves and much of the second half felt like a celebration of the team’s greatness.

Brittney Griner scored 30 points, the second-most for a U.S. woman in an Olympic game and the most in a final. A’ja Wilson scored 19. Breanna Stewart scored 14 and had 14 rebounds. The team had 12 blocks, and Japan had zero.

It’s nearly impossible to list all the accolades that resulted from this game and this run. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi famously both won their fifth gold medals. (After the game, Taurasi gave a TV interview and said, “See you in Paris.”) Dawn Staley won three gold medals as a player, two as an assistant coach and now her first as the head coach, making her 44–0 in Olympic play. She said after the game that there will be a new coach for 2024.

Whoever steps up, as the new coach or as new players, will join a team with an incredible legacy.

Cycling

The U.S. collected one individual gold medal on the final day, and it came from Jennifer Valente, who became the first U.S. woman ever to win a gold in Olympic track cycling. She won the omnium, an event that gives out points based on four separate races.

She won the first race to take an early lead, then actually crashed in a later race but didn’t lose any ground. She took second in the final sprint, which was enough to secure the win.

She had previously won two medals in team pursuit: a silver in Rio and a bronze earlier in Tokyo. Now she has individual gold, and given the timing of her event, it shined an even brighter spotlight on what would have already been a major achievement for her.

Volleyball

Speaking of historic gold medals on Day 16, the U.S. won gold in women’s indoor volleyball for the first time in Olympic history. Women’s volleyball was added to the Olympics in 1964. The U.S. had won three silvers and two bronzes, but never came away on the top step of the podium—until now.

The U.S. came out on fire in this one and never looked back. The team won the first four points of the first set, prompting a Brazil timeout. There was no slowing them down. They won 25–21, 25–20, 25–14. Andrea Drews, Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and Jordan Larson all had 12 or more points.

This was an incredible run. The team went 4–1 in group play, but looked to be in real trouble after that lone loss, a 3–0 straight-sets sweep against the ROC, in which Jordan Thompson, who had been the leading scorer in the whole tournament up to that point, left with an ankle injury. Despite her not returning, the U.S. never lost again, and didn’t even lose a set in the knockout stage, sweeping the Dominican Republic, Serbia and Brazil 3–0, 3–0, 3–0.

This team also had one of the better reactions of any team upon winning. Look at all the emotion in this scene after the final point.

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The win avenged losses to Brazil in the gold-medal games in both 2008 and ’12. And the game made for a cool accomplishment for head coach Karch Kiraly, who had already won two Olympic golds as an indoor player and one more playing beach volleyball.

Other notes

Just emptying my notebook and tying up a few loose ends.

On the last day of the Olympics, Tokyo topped 4,000 COVID-19 cases for the fifth straight day. We don’t know the full scope of how the Olympics have affected Japan yet, but we should not stop following this story when the athletes leave town. The IOC decided to go ahead with these Games, whatever the consequences, and the impact it has on the host country shouldn’t be ignored.

A German modern pentathlon coach was disqualified from the Olympics after punching a horse. Hard to get much lower than that. I mentioned in my preview of every sport that modern pentathlon riders are given unfamiliar horses with which to complete jumps. A video circulated on social media (but has since been removed) of the German rider, who had a huge lead, and then she was in tears because the horse refused to do any of the jumps. (As many people pointed out, good for the horse.) Several sports have been on the chopping block in recent years, and this one already seems antiquated and relatively unpopular. If we have unwilling horses and humans punching them, maybe it won’t be long for the Olympics to drop it from the program.

Early in the Olympics, I passed along a link about Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who said she was being removed from the country against her will. I wanted to follow up with a little more information, on her coaches’ being removed from the Olympics. Reuters interviewed her a couple of days ago and put together a timeline of the events.

I loved this Twitter thread from ESPN’s Ryan McGee about the tiny island of Nauru, its history with Japan (including occupation in WWII) and its two athletes in Tokyo.

Here’s a tweet from Connor Fields, the BMX rider who was in a horrific crash. Just a reminder of how serious that situation was.

Congrats are in order for my colleague Dan Gartland, who crushed me in the Quadrathlon. Before the Olympics, he and I drafted teams to root for in five sports in which the U.S. failed to qualify (men’s and women’s handball, men’s and women’s field hockey, and men’s soccer). My teams started out 14–2–3 (humble brag), but unraveled as the medal rounds approached. He won two silvers and two bronzes, to my lone bronze medal, and won 31.5 to 21.5. You can see details here. My punishment for losing is … nothing! Because we didn’t set any stakes. But this loss will weigh on me for the next three years.

Snapshots from Tokyo

SI’s photo team captured great stuff in Tokyo throughout the entire Olympics. One last time, take a look at their gallery. And our photo staff also put together a gallery with SI photos of some of the greatest Olympians ever.

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What to Watch

For 16-plus days, I’ve given you a rundown of what to watch in the following 24 hours. This time we’ll look a little further into the future.

The Paralympics

The Olympics and Paralympics are always held in the same year, in the same host city, so they were also delayed to 2021. The competition begins on Tuesday, Aug. 24 and ends on Sunday, Sept. 5. NBC’s family of networks will air a record amount of coverage, and I suggest checking it out! The Paralympics do not get anywhere near the amount of media attention as the Olympics, but they will feature incredible athletes with incredible stories. SI featured three Paralympians—Jessica Long, David Brown and Chuck Aoki—on the flip cover of our Olympics preview magazine, and those stories will be available online soon.

The 2022 Winter Olympics

Thanks to the delayed 2020* Olympics, there is a very quick turnaround before we do this again. How fast? Try less than six months. The 2022 Winter Olympics will start on Friday, Feb. 4 in Beijing.

The 2020 Olympics were held under controversial circumstances, and the next Olympics may be even more controversial. First of all, we don’t know what the COVID-19 pandemic will look like in six months. And second, groups alleging human-rights abuses in China have been calling for a boycott of the 2022 Games. The U.S. State Department has said a boycott is not in the cards, but you will hear more about the pressure put on the IOC as we get closer. Beijing, which just hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, was already a strange choice to host a Winter Olympics for more conventional reasons. See The Atlantic’s 2015 article titled: A Winter Olympics in a City Without Snow.

The 2024 Paris and 2028 Los Angeles Olympics

I got an email from newsletter subscriber Lindsay Schnell, whom those of you who subscribed to the Very Olympic Today podcast in 2016 will remember from her excellent narrative podcast episodes. Given the new rules that allow host countries to add additional sports to the core program, she asked the following:

Has Paris announced yet what sports it will include? What sports could possibly be on the docket for the 2028 games in L.A. that were previously eliminated?

Thanks for the question, Lindsay! The Paris Olympics have finalized the list of sports—28 core sports and four add-ons. Three of the sports that were new to the Tokyo Games will return in three years in that "additional" category: sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing. Plus, 3x3 basketball is listed with the core sports. The final one, which will likely induce controversy and eye rolls from many, is breaking. Yes, that means breakdancing. You can read more at that link above. This also means, notably, that baseball/softball will not be in the program, barring an unexpected change. Neither will karate.

The sports are not finalized for the L.A. Olympics in 2028. But if I had to make an educated guess, I’d think skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing would all make sense again. I thought they all seemed well received in Tokyo, and they’re all sports the U.S. can be good at that would also fit the vibe of a Los Angeles Olympics. I would also not be surprised at all to see the U.S. choose baseball/softball, given their popularity here. But we’ll see. Sports like ultimate frisbee and others are making a push to be considered.

SI’s Best

• Michael Rosenberg says the U.S. women’s basketball team is in good hands.

• Stephanie Apstein wrote about the U.S. women’s volleyball team’s first gold medal.

• Stephanie also covered the U.S. baseball team’s loss in the gold-medal game.

• Greg Bishop on the incredible Allyson Felix.

• Greg also wrote about U.S. men’s boxing, which was again denied a gold medal.

As a reminder, this newsletter is free if you sign up to receive it in your inbox. You can also subscribe to SI.com for unlimited access to all the other great stories on our site.

The Olympics are over, but this newsletter isn’t quite yet. I will be back again on Monday with a final look back at the last 16 days. Thanks for reading.

—Mitch