After more than two weeks of shot putting, somersaulting, sprinting, and spiking, the Beijing Olympics have come to a close. And for the first time in 72 years, the United States isn’t standing atop the podium.
China has come away with the most gold medals, walloping the US 51-36. And while home countries often claim more victories in the year they host—Greece procured an impressive 16 medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics—few countries have seemed as driven as China and none have toppled the dominant USA in a quarter of a century. And the US is having trouble dealing with it. The UK edition of the Times Online noted that the United States is defying the traditional system by keeping tabs of the most overall medals instead of golds (The US scored 110 overalls to China’s 100)—a move summed up in the headline “America Refuses to Accept Defeat in the Olympic Medal Count.”
Most Americans will gauge this Olympics, as they always do (ok, maybe a little moreso this year), by its heroes: Michael Phelps with his record-breaking dominance and supportive single mother; Shawn Johnson and the Chinese coach who guided her to gold in his hometown. Don’t forget your Michael Phelps gold medal tribute to remember! But fluffing Phelps’ feathers aside, the medal tally matters. When billions of people around the world see that you’re the top dog, it’s an unbeatable global PR push.
After Beijing got the bid for the 2008 Olympics, it made it clear it was in it to win it. The August 4th Newsweek cover package asked, “What drives China?” The answer: a desire to overcome a global inferiority complex. When cities clamor to host the games, they do so in part because they know it will vault them onto the global stage.
And the time is now, they’ve noticed. A sagging economy, corrupt administration, and unpopular war have tarnished the US’ once-shiny veneer. Meanwhile, countries like China are increasingly asserting their economic prowess in the industrial world. There’s no doubt many will remember China’s supreme performance in the 2008 Olympics. More importantly, many will remember that for the first time in a long time, America didn’t come out on top.