Breaking Down USA's 1,000 Summer Olympic Gold Medals

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2016

The four women who captured the United States' 1,000th gold medal.
The four women who captured the United States' 1,000th gold medal.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The United States became the first nation to win 1,000 Olympic gold medals Saturday night, and the four women who put America over the top by claiming the 4x100-meter medley relay in swimming couldn't have been any more appropriate.

Since this is a team accomplishment—and a feat no other nation is even marginally close to duplicating—it makes perfect sense that a relay team should get the honor.

Leading the way was backstroker Kathleen Baker, a 19-year-old whose Olympic resolve included regularly commuting 80 miles each way in North Carolina to practice with her coach and team of choice.

Next up was feisty Lilly King, also 19, who had no problem with calling out a rival for a drug-cheating history before she won her gold in the breaststroke.

The third leg belonged to butterfly specialist Dana Vollmer, the "momma on a mission," who gave birth just 17 months ago.

And the anchor leg belonged to Simone Manuel, who made history at these Olympics as the first female African-American to win a gold medal in an individual event in swimming. 

That mix of determination, spunk, overcoming the odds and breaking barriers made the women as deserving a group as anyone could want to win America's 1,000th gold. It also was appropriate that the 1,000th medal came from swimmers, who have been the driving force for the Americans leading the medal count at the last five Summer Olympics, an accomplishment they are likely to repeat in Rio.

Going into the Rio Olympics, the USA sat at 977 golds, the defunct Soviet Union was stuck at 395 and Great Britain was highest among the other nations that are still in business, at 245.

Those lopsided numbers are a testament to the consistency of the American Olympic effort, dating all the way back to the start of the modern Games in 1896. Make no mistake, there have been some rocky periods, but even in its worst years, the USA has never left a Summer Olympics worse than third on the medals table.

So how has the American team managed to stay on top for so long? Many reasons, and here are some of the biggest.


The U.S. has been there nearly every step of the way

Yes, political factors have helped distance the United States from the pack. The Soviet Union didn't participate in its first Summer Olympics until 1952 and won its final medals in 1992, when it was known as the Unified Team. Likewise, East Germany had a great run, winning more golds than the U.S. at the 1976 and 1988 Games, but it left the Olympic scene shortly after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

But even if Soviet and Russian golds are combined, that total still trails the U.S. by more than 400. The two Germanys are even farther back.

The only time the U.S. lost significant ground was when it boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but that essentially evened out when the Soviet bloc boycotted in 1984.


We can run really fast, and jump really far

Carl Lewis owned the long jump, with four golds.
Carl Lewis owned the long jump, with four golds.ERIC FEFERBERG/Getty Images

More so than anything, the Summer Games are a track meet, and the U.S. has always been stocked with sprinters and jumpers, especially on the men's side. All time, the U.S. total of 332 track golds heading into the Rio Games dwarfs the Soviet Union's 64 and Britain's 56.

In the short-track events—the 100, 200, 400, 110 and 400 hurdles and the 4x100 and 4x400 relays—the U.S. has won 120 of a possible 178 golds all-time. And the U.S. men have earned at least 15 gold medals in each of those events.

No other nation has won any of those events more than three times.

In the long jump, U.S. men have 23 golds (including one at Rio by Jeff Henderson for gold medal No. 1,001) and four alone by Carl Lewis. Next up? Great Britain with just two.

The U.S. hasn't produced a steady stream of repeat winners in track and field (aside from a few obvious exceptions—Michael JohnsonEdwin Moses and Roger Kingdom), but there always has been a reliable supply of deserving contenders for the title of world's fastest man, from Jesse Owens to Bob Hayes to Maurice Greene.


Swimmers keep coming back for more

Mark Spitz ruled at the 1972 Olympics, with seven swimming golds.
Mark Spitz ruled at the 1972 Olympics, with seven swimming golds.AFP/Getty Images

Swimming has been an incredible pot of gold for the U.S., primarily because it generates so many athletes who can win multiple golds.

On the men's side, there are 11 swimmers worldwide who have won five or more career golds, and 10 of them have been American. (Australia's Ian Thorpe is the lone exception.)

Everyone knows about Michael Phelps' 23 golds, but don't forget the nine gold medals won by Mark Spitz, the eight from Matt Biondi, or the six from Ryan Lochte. Even Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous Tarzan of all, won five back in the '20s.

The American women have been just as impressive. Of the 14 female swimmers worldwide to have won four or more gold medals, half of them have been from the U.S. Katie Ledecky joined the club in Rio, but Jenny Thompson remains the leader with eight, while Amy Van Dyken tallied six.

Championship swimmers are the gift that keeps on giving to the USA medal count.

Overall, the USA has had 19 summer athletes who won five or more golds, and 12 were swimmers.

So it's no surprise that the 248 by American swimmers is more than quadruple the total of second-ranked Australia's 60. 


Versatility equals victories

Shooter Ginny Thrasher got the USA's gold medal count started at Rio.
Shooter Ginny Thrasher got the USA's gold medal count started at Rio.Harry How/Getty Images

Pick most any category, and Americans are likely to have made an impact. Olympians who lived to be 100? The U.S. has had 13 of them. Olympians who received a Rhodes Scholarship? The USA checks in with nine.

There are only three sports on the summer schedule in which the United States has never won a medal of any color: badminton, table tennis and team handball.

Beyond track and swimming, though, the U.S. has received a boost to its gold-medal count from four sports it can count on to produce each Games. And you probably can't name the top one...

Shooting, with 54 golds. Give the U.S. military a nod there, which again has a strong presence among the shooters at Rio.

The others are wrestling (50), boxing (49) and diving (48). That's 201 combined gold medals produced by those four sports. Only six other nations have managed that many golds all-time from their entire teams.

And remember, there are only so many gold-medal opportunities, and every time the U.S. wins, it's one less that's available for rivals. Basketball is the perfect example of an American monopoly, where the men and women have combined for 21 golds. The USSR had four. No other nation has more than one.


We get what we pay for

Changes in amatuerism rules have helped Michael Phelps and other swimmers stay around for multiple Olympics.
Changes in amatuerism rules have helped Michael Phelps and other swimmers stay around for multiple Olympics.Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

The U.S. has won the most golds at four of the last five Summer Olympics, losing only when China capitalized on its home-field advantage at the 2008 Beijing Games. Money has certainly been a factor, increasing in importance when the U.S. helped abolish antiquated rules on amateurism. These days, the U.S. Olympic Committee distributes about $50 million a year to 40 different sports federations.

As Bloomberg noted in an exhaustive look at USOC financing, the cash has largely been doled out on a pay-for-performance basis, and that incentive plan clearly has succeeded.

And at Rio, any American who wins a gold medal gets a $25,000 bonus from the USOC. (U.S. wrestlers fall into a special category though, as private donors are offering a $250,000 incentive for gold.) 

But lest anyone chalks up U.S. dominance to the almighty dollar, please note that other nations are dangling larger bonuses for gold.

According to Fox Sports research (via MarketWatch), Italy offers $185,000 for a gold-medal performance, France gives $66,000 and Russia checks in at $61,000.

The biggest potential bonus of all can be found in Singapore, which offers one million Singapore dollars, or about $753,000 in U.S. currency. Joseph Schooling beat out Michael Phelps in the men's 100-meter butterfly, meaning he will be the first to cash in on the enormous bonus.


1904 was a very good year

Finally, two key factors about Olympic math: The 1906 Olympics don't count, but the 1904 Games do.

The International Olympic Committee doesn't recognize results from the 1906 Games in Athens, which didn't observe the traditional four-year break between Olympics.

But the IOC does recognize the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, which were conducted over four-and-a-half months as part of a World's Fair, and only about half of the events included foreign participants.

As a result, the U.S. loses 12 golds from 1906 but gains a whopping 76 from 1904. No other nation won more than four golds at St. Louis.


Tom Weir covered 15 Olympics (eight Winter, seven Summer) as a columnist for USA Today. Statistics for this story were compiled mainly from Sports-Reference.com and David Wallechinsky's The Complete Book of the Olympics.