The United States ended the 2012 Olympics with 104 medals, including 46 gold, leaving London as the clear winner of the Olympics. If the International Olympic Committee gave out medals for the country with the most medals, Team USA would have won another gold medal.
China finished second in the medal count with 88 total medals, 38 gold. Great Britain finished with 65 medals, including 29 gold, giving those in the host nation the bragging rights of most medals per capita.
Still, no matter how many people live in the respective countries or how many athletes those countries sent to compete in the Olympics, it is clear the United States won the 2012 Summer Games. We are the winners at winning. The best. The greatest. Raise our flag and sing our national anthem for the 47th time in 16 days, please. We are the champions, friends.
Seriously, that is how it works at the Olympics, right?
For two weeks every four years, the world exhibits the delicate balance of celebrating sport through cultural diversity and exuding international dominance through athletics—then we do it all again in the winter.
Is the United States 104 times more awesome than Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, all leaving the Olympics with one bronze medal for each respective country?
Is Michael Phelps, who leaves London with six medals, better than the entire nation of Ireland that won only five?
The right answer to both those questions is…probably, yes.
From an Olympic standpoint, the United States is probably 104 times more successful than any country with just one medal, and Michael Phelps probably is a better Olympian than the entire athletic contingent of at least three dozen competing nations.
As much as we want the Olympics to be about cultural diversity and human interest around the globe, our nation gravitates toward excellence. Winning breeds human interest. We frankly don't care as much about our athletes who didn't medal at the Olympics because there are so many who did.
Missy Franklin is one of the biggest breakout stars of Team USA because she won the most medals of any woman at the Olympics. Her story becomes instantly more compelling for the average American talk-show viewer, because Franklin has four gold medals and one bronze hanging from her neck when she tells it.
When Allyson Felix finished out of the medals in the 100-meter dash, marketing and TV executives had to feel a slight moment of panic. Three gold medals later and Felix has the Midas touch for media, guaranteeing herself a long stay in spotlight.
Winning is important. If our American Olympians didn't win so many medals, as a nation we simply wouldn't care about watching them compete.
The U.S. women's soccer team had its gold-medal match put on NBC Sports Network (instead of NBC, which showed the U.S. women's water polo gold-medal match at the same time), and the redemptive victory over Japan drew 4.35 million viewers on a Thursday afternoon. The match was the highest-rated sporting event in the history of the NBC Sports Network (previously named Versus). The match wasn't relegated to NBCSN because it couldn't get a number; it was put on the cable network because it did.
More than four million people watched the women's soccer team earn gold, with millions more following online and through social media. Just a few days earlier, nearly six times that many Americans tuned in during prime-time coverage to watch Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and the U.S. gymnastics team bring home six medals, including gold in the team and individual all-around competitions.
Over 20 million people tuned in night after night to NBC's tape-delayed prime-time coverage of the Olympics, just to watch our athletes compete in swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, track and field and events in more than 30 different disciplines we immerse ourselves in for two weeks every four years. Why? Because Americans do well in most of them.
That said, our attention cannot just be because of the athletic excellence, but more what that excellence represents. Simply put, we like to watch Old Glory rise to the rafters.
Oh, say, can you see…how incredibly awesome we are?
Other countries have to be sick of the United States winning so many Olympic medals, but that international athletic dominance could not have come at a better time for America.
Our nation is fractured. We can barely have a rational discussion with our neighbors—whether it's about politics, policy, the value of human life and when it begins, or even innocuous nonsense like the weather—without it turning into a 12-round bout.
Color me naïve, but I do not remember this level of venom and hatred between sides in pre-Internet election cycles. Blame the economy or the terrorists or the degradation of human decency and values (or Al Gore for inventing the Internet, which led to chat rooms and Facebook and Twitter) or whatever cable channels are stuck between Fox News and Comedy Central, but it feels like we are living in separate worlds tied together by nothing more than tax codes, property lines and a few dozen stars and stripes.
For the next two months, every talking head in America will debate if Paul Ryan will help Mitt Romney systematically save or destroy this great nation. There is no in-between, or somehow they will manage to do both.
Even our sports interests divide us. People in Philadelphia hate people in New York who hate people in Boston, just because of the teams we choose to follow. Shoot, in some parts of the country, 150 miles separates generations of statewide infighting. In some cities, the side of town you live on can create lifelong enemies.
For two weeks this summer, it did not matter if you were a donkey or an elephant or a tiger or a horse. (Romney allegedly waited until his wife's horse competed in the dressage competition in London before announcing his vice-presidential running mate. The horse did not win.)
It did not matter if you were from the north side or the south, if your socks were red or your pinstripes were blue. The biggest debates we had as Americans were not about Obamacare or unemployment or global warming or at what point life begins. The most heated debate we had during the Olympics was who to root for between Phelps or Lochte, Douglas or Raisman, Walsh and May-Treanor or Kessy and Ross.
For two weeks, we were towns, cities and states, united by a team of athletes performing on our behalf, showcasing their strength and determination as an extension of ours. For two weeks, the distraction worked. There should be a gold medal for that.
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