Despite gloom-and-doom predictions and a stumbling start out of the blocks, the 1988 U.S. Olympic team came out of Seoul with pretty good results. It was a team whose lack of depth was balanced out by the quality and maturity of its best athletes, and one that generally kept victory in perspective and showed grace in defeat. These last two qualities were reason enough to declare these Games a success for the Americans who participated.
Here's the final medal count for the top four countries:
The count proved a couple of things. First, the U.S., athletically, has definitely not slipped compared with most countries. True, a record 31 nations won gold medals, but the previous mark of 30 was set in 1968, before the advent of such Olympic sports as archery and table tennis. There were 65 fewer events in Mexico City in '68 and 48 fewer nations in attendance. That one additional nation won gold in Seoul is no indication of significant change. As the large gap between the medal totals of the third country in the rankings, the U.S., and No. 4 West Germany illustrates, the Big Three still got a major share of the medals, taking home 328 of the 739 awarded, or 44%—which is only slightly less impressive than the 309 of 613 medals, or 50.4%, that the Soviet Union, East Germany and the U.S. hauled home from Montreal in '76, the last Olympics the three attended together.
Second, the medal count showed that the U.S. has slipped in relation to the two Eastern bloc giants of sport. By any measure, the Soviet Union, which this year won more medals and more golds than any country since England in 1908 (56 gold, 50 silver, 39 bronze—145 total), was the dominant sports nation at the Games. (Disregard the boycotted Summer Olympics of '80, when the Soviets won 195 medals, and of '84, when the U.S. won 174.) East Germany was second, surpassing the U.S. in medals for the first time.
Not that U.S. Olympic officials were surprised. Things went pretty much as expected from the point of view of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). Certainly, some events turned out better than anticipated, others worse, but the overall results were on a par with the American performance in 1972 (94 medals, 33 gold) and '76 (94 medals, 34 gold).
The U.S. track and field team was particularly impressive, winning 26 medals, half of them gold. That was America's best showing since 1968. Boxing, partly as a result of a boycott by the Cubans, also fulfilled U.S. expectations, with eight medals.
The only sport in which the U.S. medal count significantly decreased was swimming and diving. Americans dominated the pool in 1972 (46 medals) and in '76 (39), but were able to collect only 26 this time, five of them in events that weren't even on the program at the Montreal Olympics (solo and duet synchronized swimming, men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay and men's and women's 50-meter freestyle). Janet Evans, Matt Biondi and Greg Louganis were the only U.S. winners in individual events, a far cry from the 12 individual gold medals won by Americans in '76. What happened? Many observers felt that the U.S. swimming trials were held too close to the Olympics, making it difficult for the Americans to peak. Others merely ascribed it to the end of an era: The world has caught up.
How, then, can the U.S. achieve parity with the U.S.S.R. and East Germany in future Olympics? The USOC should pay particular attention to five sports: gymnastics, shooting, cycling, canoeing and rowing.
The Soviets won a total of 32 medals in gymnastics and shooting. The U.S. won two. The East Germans won 25 medals in cycling, canoeing and rowing, compared with six in those sports for Americans. If the medals in those five sports had been more evenly divided, something close to U.S.-U.S.S.R.-East German parity would have been reached.
Each of these five sports has a fairly wide base in the U.S. But in the past there has been so little effort and money spent to encourage top rowers, cyclists and gymnasts to train and compete in non-Olympic years that many of these athletes simply chuck their sports before they reach their prime. How would the U.S. track and field team have done this year without Carl Lewis, Roger Kingdom, Edwin Moses, Florence Griffith Joyner. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, et al., who were able to stay in the sport after the 1984 Olympics thanks to the various shoe contracts and appearance fees available to outstanding performers in their sport? That sort of financial assistance must be arranged for the so-called minor sports as well. Over the next four years, that should be the USOC's mandate.