Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, Greece, the United States has won nearly 2,300 medals, 930 of which have been gold. In the last six Summer Games, the United States has won an average of nearly 38 gold medals per Olympiad, the most of any country.
While every Olympic medal is important—every athlete who has the chance to compete in the Olympics is doing so as a representative of our country—there are some events every four years the American audience seems to gravitate toward more than others.
Some Olympic medals just seem flat-out more important than the rest, and that importance may be due in part to the overall interest in the sport. While we hope our archery and fencing teams can bring home gold every four years, Americans have more invested in professional basketball, making the level of importance we put on Team USA even higher.
Other Olympic medals seem more important because of who is winning them. Whether fans are pulling for Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, Americans have developed a vested interest in their success over the course of their Olympic careers. What the so-called "Olympic celebrities" do in their events does feel more important.
Of those important medals, here's a look at the events that feel the most important as medals start being handed out in London.
There are 34 gold medals awarded in swimming and the U.S. swimming team had to go into the London Olympics expecting to win at least half of them.
In Beijing, the U.S. won 12 gold medals, nine silver and 10 bronze in swimming, far and away the most medals of any country. In 2004, the U.S. also took home 12 swimming golds, nine silver and, gasp, only seven bronze.
Clearly, the United States won't win every gold medal, but they should be favorites in every relay and most of the high-profile events for both men and women. Of all the teams competing at the Olympic Games, there are few who put more pressure on themselves than the swimmers. In many events—certainly in the case of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte (pictured)—the United States competes against itself.
This should be a huge medal tally for the United States, starting from Day 1 and running through the first week. If you visit the aquatic center, expect to hear our national anthem all week long.
If I were the photographer who took this photo, I'd caption it: "LeBron James jokes about what might happen if the United States doesn't win gold, while Kobe Bryant scowls in terror."
While we expect the swimming squad to dominate over 34 events, we expect the U.S. basketball team to dominate their tournament more than any other American team. There is but one gold medal for basketball, and the United States has to win it.
If Team USA loses a game, it will be international news. Yes, the world has caught up to the United States in their quality of international basketball, but the team constructed for this year's Olympic Games has as much pressure on it to win as any team since the Dream Team.
There has been so much talk about the 20th anniversary of the original Dream Team this summer that the history of that run has been unfairly tethered to this year's team. The only reason there isn't more pressure on Team USA is because everyone expects them to win going away.
If they don't...
While there is more fanfare for the men's basketball team, there may be just as much pressure on the women's team to win gold in London.
Of the nine times women's basketball has been a medal sport in the Olympic Games, the United States has medaled in eight, with the only Olympics to not see the U.S. on the medal stand the year the country boycotted in 1980.
The U.S. women's team has won four straight gold medals and six of the last seven, dating back to 1984. Second place would feel like a disaster.
While men's soccer has never lived up to international expectations for the United States, the women's team consistently delivers, winning three of the four gold medals for women's soccer at the Olympic Games and bringing home silver in the other.
The U.S. women are two-time defending champs at the Olympic Games, but that may not be the driving force for this team in London. After falling in penalty kicks in the 2011 World Cup final to Japan, this Olympic gold is more important than any major tournament they have entered.
This U.S. team is on a mission, and anything other than another gold will feel like a failure.
The duo of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor have seemed unstoppable for nearly a decade in their sport, especially at the Olympic Games, winning gold in the last two competitions. The team enters the 2012 London Games ranked third in the world, but they have to be the favorites against any team that lines up on the other side of the net.
Certainly, the two didn't have to come back for another Olympic Games. For injury or family reasons, they had every reason to stop playing at some point in the last four years and moonlight at NBC as Olympic analysts for the Games.
That said, winning three gold medals has to be more enticing than sharing a couch with Bob Costas or Ryan Seacrest. Well, maybe not Seacrest. Still, winning another gold would be huge.
The U.S. gymnastic teams should be favorites to bring home gold again this year, with a host of soon-to-be breakout stars ready to leap—get it?—into competition.
It has to be an amazing journey for Olympic gymnasts, knowing that no matter what they do, all of America will be watching with bated breath. If they can win gold, they will become stars beyond their wildest imagination.
These kids are still teenagers, and they are one good dismount away from becoming historic icons. That's the kind of pressure most of us cannot understand.
And yet, it seems second nature to medal hopefuls like reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber and fellow competitor Gabby Douglas. Both will be striving for the ultimate Olympic glory in the all-around competition. With a host of other medal hopefuls, the team competition feels like it may be the United States' to lose.
No pressure, ladies.
The 400-meter race has been the United States' best Olympic track-and-field event for generations. Since 1984, the U.S. team has won 16 of the possible 21 medals in the event, sweeping the last two Olympic Games.
LaShawn Merritt has to be the favorite to win gold again after blowing away the field at the U.S. Olympic trials. While Merritt goes to London with all the pressure in the world, his teammates Tony McQuay and Bryshon Nellum have a ton of pressure, too. Sweeping the 400-meter and, obviously, winning the 4x400 relay are the ultimate Olympic goals.
The marquee event of the entire Olympic Games is the men's 100-meter dash. While Usain Bolt has owned that event for the last half decade, the United States sprinters think they have a chance to take the giant off his perch as world's fastest man.
They probably don't.
That said, they do have a chance to win the 4x100-meter relay, an event the United States used to dominate. Now, the Jamaicans have taken that crown as well. In the last Olympic Games in Beijing, the U.S. didn't even qualify for the finals after a bungled exchange, while the Jamaican squad went out and broke the world record.
This year, the United States has to be more focused and needs to be in the final to try to take out the champs. Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Ryan Bailey and Trell Kimmons should be the four who try to do just that.
The 4x100-relay gold may not be the most likely medal for the United States, but if it happens, which it could, it may be the most important.
There are certainly some golds not on the list. As the U.S. is expected to bring home close to 40 gold medals, feel free to add your most important in the comments.