ATHENS, Greece - The United States finished atop the medal charts for the third straight Summer Olympics, with Russia the overall runner-up and China second in gold medals — its best showing ever and the leading edge of a surge by Asian teams.
Six nations won gold medals for the first time; the trailblazers included an Arab sheik marksman and an Israeli windsurfer. Two other countries, Paraguay and Eritrea, won their first medals of any sort.
The American team amassed 103 total medals, topping its target of 100, and won 35 golds to 32 for China and 27 for Russia. But China played the lead role in the games’ most significant trend — the improvement of Asian squads in a widening array of Olympic sports as they gird for the 2008 Beijing Games.
Far East Asian nations won 63 gold medals in Athens, compared to 43 at Sydney in 2000. Japan alone upped its gold total from five to 16, the biggest increase of any nation, while China won golds for the first time in tennis and men’s track.
“These were the games where we saw the awakening of Asia,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said. “The traditional strong nations that dominate the scene now will have to work extremely hard.”
Australian Olympic chief John Coates, whose team finished fourth, said China and Japan “have sent us an ominous warning. They’re gearing up for a dominant performance in 2008.”
Asia’s gains came largely at the expense of Europe. Germany won 48 medals in Athens, nine fewer than in Sydney, while medal hauls also dropped for France, Italy, Poland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. Greece, despite drug scandals and other setbacks, won 16 medals, its best showing since it hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Russia dipped in golds compared to Sydney (27 to 32) but, despite disappointing performances in swimming and gymnastics, exceeded its overall medal total — 92 this time compared to 88 in 2000.
The Americans won the most medals in swimming and track, and finished just one behind Romania in gymnastics. U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Jim Scherr, who set his team’s medal target, said surpassing it was “an exceptional accomplishment” in light of the stiffening competition from Asia and the former Soviet republics.
Yet the U.S. gold medal total of 35 was the lowest since the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
“It’s more and more difficult, as time goes on, for U.S. athletes to gain a spot on the podium,” Scherr said.
Australia finished with 49 total medals and 17 golds, a remarkable performance in two respects.
Avoiding a traditional falloff, it became the first nation ever to increase its gold medal total four years after hosting the Summer Games; the Aussies won 16 golds in Sydney.
Also, Australia joined Cuba as the major Olympic nations winning the most medals per capita in Athens. With a population of 20 million, Australia won a medal for each 408,000 people. Cuba won 27 medals, one for each 418,000 of its 11.3 million citizens. One little country outddid them: The Bahamas, population 300,000, won two medals.
India had the worst ratio among medal winners — just one, a silver in shooting, for its 1.3 billion people. Populous countries winning no medals included Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam.
In all, 75 of the 202 countries competing in Athens won at least one medal — not a record. In Sydney, 80 won medals.
Countries claiming their first-ever gold medals included Taiwan in taekwondo; the Dominican Republic in men’s 400-meter hurdles, Chile in tennis and Georgia in judo. Windsurfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold; Ahmed Al Maktoum, a wealthy sheik, won the United Arab Emirates’ first gold in trap shooting.
Paraguay, without any medal in nine previous Summer Games, won a silver courtesy of its men’s soccer team. Zersenay Tadesse won bronze in the 10,000-meters for Eritrea, its first medal since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Ethiopia and Kenya led Africa with seven medals each; the continent as a whole won 35, the same as in Sydney. South American nations won 23 medals, up from 19 in Sydney.
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