While a few nations and athletes count up their gold medals and debate who has had the best summer, others are doing some serious soul searching as they head home and wonder, what went wrong?
Take Australia, for instance. Their six gold medals and 29 total medals seems like a decent haul, putting them in the top ten of all nations at the London Olympics. But that's not good enough for this sports-proud nation, particularly when their favorite event, swimming, produced only one champion. The state has launched a formal inquiry into the swimming program to try and figure out how they've fallen so far in the 12 years since they dominated the pool in Sydney. Same too for Austria, which has its own proud tradition of sportsmanship, but has failed to win a single medal at these Games, the first time that's happened since 1964. (They generally do much better at winter sports.) Imagine the horror, as articulated by that country's sports minister, of being "on the same level as Luxembourg."
With over 200 nations competing and only about 70 winning any medals at all, there's really no shame in not finding yourself on the podium during an Olympic Games. For big countries that are used to athletic success, however, it can be particularly painful to find yourself losing after you grew accustomed to being on top. Russia was wondering how it could trail its formerly conquered neighbor, Kazakhstan. (Luckily for Russian pride, they're now comfortably leading the former Soviet republic.) Other nations used to tremble in fear at the prowess — sometimes questionably obtained — of the East German sports machine, but now their combined might (and zero swimming medals) leaves the Germans as just another Hungary or (gasp) South Korea. There's the Spanish soccer team, defenders of World Cup and Euro trophies, failing to score a goal in three games. And how can the great European powers no longer dominate fencing?
Yet, nowhere is the pressure to deliver greater than in the countries that actually deliver the most: China and the United States. It's fortunate that the U.S. women's soccer team defeated Japan on Thursday as their "legacy" might not have withstood a lousy silver. Michael Phelps appeared washed up after his first silver (defeated by another American, at least), before finally recovering to the acceptable number of golds. U.S. Boxing? They needed a teenage girl to rescue the program from total failure. Our men's soccer team couldn't even get here, but that might even be preferable to showing up and claiming zero sailing medals. What would we ever do without the Dream Team? (Which isn't as good as the original, of course.)
China gets the most grief, however, both at home and abroad. Western nations criticize their aggressive "train them young" approach — which usually results in those Western nations getting abused by Chinese superstars, who are so isolated in training they aren't even told when their parents have cancer. Yet, that "win at all costs" mentality bring even more heat when you groom a child for a lifetime of athletic championships ... and they don't become champions. Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao offered a tearful apology after deciding his silver medal wasn't good enough to bring home. The Chinese state media was called out after people realized that gold medalists were offered hearty congratulations and praise, while silver and bronze winners (even in the same event) were ignored. They spun as simple patriotism, but the lesson is clear that it's Gold or Nothing.
There were a lot of people attacking that Chinese attitude (and their success with it) these last two weeks, but those people are conveniently ignoring the overwhelming desire that all athletes have to wear gold around their neck. If winning the most medals didn't matter, then why would we even keep score? Why we would wear uniforms and carry flags or even divide into teams at all? The truth is that the Chinese don't want gold medals any more or any less than we do, they're just more organized about it.
It's easy to forget in all the high-minded rhetoric about peace and togetherness that the Olympics are, at their heart, still a competition. Individuals, teams, nations all fighting to win. The only downside is that the better you are at winning, the harder it is to lose. And if it's this bad for your country, imagine how the actual athletes feel. As Australia's 50-meter swimming star James Magnussen put it when he came home empty-handed in his signature event, "It is a pretty tough time to learn you are human."