The Summer Olympics went as perfectly as possible for the U.S.
We got to see Michael Phelps maintain his dominance and set records with his personal medal count. We got to see the women's track and field stars finally redeem themselves in the relay. We got to see both the men's and women's basketball teams destroy the competition en route to more gold medals.
In the end, the U.S. finished with the most gold (46) and the most overall medals (104), besting China, which came in second with 38 golds and 88 total medals.
But we should all enjoy the lingering emotions from London 2012 while they last, because the 2014 Winter Olympics are unlikely to leave us with quite the same good feelings.
The 2014 Games are already being overshadowed by the immense political unrest and uncertainty in Russia, and it's only August. These Olympics are much more likely to resemble those of 2008 in Beijing—when political undertones dominated the Olympic dialogue—rather than those of 2010 or 2012, when the atmospheres in Vancouver and London were far less contentious.
There is abundant pressure on Sochi as the 2014 Winter Games approach, and very little of it has to do with athletics. This isn't going to be your average sporting event, where the results are all in the name of fun and it's hard to take anything too seriously. This is a make-or-break situation for Russia, and especially for President Vladimir Putin, who is under immense pressure to represent Russia well—and bring his nation together—through these Olympics.
As Paul Sonne and Richard Boudreaux wrote in Monday's edition of The Wall Street Journal:
… The challenges for Sochi are many. They include a weakened Russian Olympic team that could embarrass the country at home, and the threat of terrorist attacks that have rocked Russia for over a decade.
According to SI.com's S.L. Price, Jane Buchanan agrees. The senior researcher on Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch told him:
Russia has a very deep and serious human rights problem, and it's gotten markedly worse since Putin came back to the presidency a few months ago—increasing restrictions on freedom of assembly and [non-government organizations] and the way they operate, in particular NGOs that criticize the government. That space is tightening even further.
This—not medal counts, or shattered records, or the most likable stars—is what Sochi 2014 will be all about.
Then—on top of all of the political unrest that is bound to overshadow the fun, carefree atmosphere we saw in London this summer—there's the actual athletic aspect. The U.S. had a great two weeks in London, but it was much stronger in the summer sports than it was in the winter sports back in 2010.
In Vancouver, the Americans once again came away with the most medals (37), but they earned only the third-most gold, coming in behind Canada (14) and Germany (10). So London's success should be seen as the exception, not the rule.
The 2014 Olympics will still be great. It's the Olympics; they're always great. They will still be a spectacle, and they will still arouse the same amount of interest and excitement. But just don't expect what we all saw in London this summer.
Sochi 2014 is going to be a much different story, maybe with less of a carefree, all-in-the-name-of-fun attitude and more of an emphasis on the serious stuff.
It will still be the Olympics; it will just be a totally different game.