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U.S. wins medal count, but many missed oppurtunities

By all accounts, the United States had a great Olympics.

Americans won 103 medals, more than in Sydney or Atlanta. Michael Phelps put on a show for the ages, capped by a wonderful lesson in sportsmanship. Paul Hamm offered a tremendous reminder about never giving up.

The amazing thing is, it could have been better.

Americans won just 35 gold medals, the fewest since Montreal, 28 years ago. Phelps fell short of the goal he set and $1 million bonus he craved. And Hamm is still defending the legitimacy of his triumph.

So while Athens will go down as one of the best Summer Games for the red, white and blue, don’t put it at the top of the list.

These great Olympics could have been superb. But something always got in the way.

Look at Phelps.

He won eight medals, something no American and only one other Olympian had done. The letdown was that two were bronze. Had they been gold, he would’ve met his dream of breaking the record of seven golds won by Mark Spitz in 1972 — and collected a $1 million bonus from a sponsor.

“I can’t say enough about what an honor it was to even have the opportunity to attempt that,” Phelps said Sunday.

Phelps could have closed his games by swimming the butterfly leg of the 400-meter relay. Instead, he gave his spot to teammate and top rival Ian Crocker, not because he was tired but so they could both get a medal. They did. Gold.

Schoolteachers and coaches can get a lot of mileage out of that one. They also can tell kids about Hamm, who went from a vault landing that sent him tumbling onto the judges’ table — and into 12th place — to winning the all-around gold with two near-perfect performances.

He was hardly able to savor the comeback, though, because of a scoring squabble that has outlasted the Olympic flame. The cauldron was extinguished Sunday night, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport headed back to Lausanne, Switzerland, without having ruled on South Korea’s request to have the top three reshuffled with its gymnast on top.

The list of U.S. champions includes the expected, like Phelps and the softball and women’s basketball squads; the hoped-for, like Hamm and fellow gymnast Carly Patterson; and pleasant surprises, like Mariel Zagunis winning the first American gold in fencing since 1904.

More notable are the names that are missing — most prominently the men’s basketball team that had been unbeaten at the Olympics since adding NBA players in 1992. The squad formerly known as the Dream Team got bronze.

U.S. divers would have loved one of those. They were shut out for the first time in 92 years.

American boxers had their worst Olympics in 56 years, winning just two medals. At least one was gold, though, the first by the squad since 1996.

In track, medal sweeps in the men’s 200 and 400 meters were great. Silver in the men’s 400 relay and a disqualification in the women’s race weren’t. The men had won seven of the last nine times they entered. The women had won four of the last five.

The male track team ended up with its most medals since 1992. The women had their fewest since ’76, hindered by having left several of their best sprinters home in the wake of a steroid scandal.

There also was turnover within the team. Justin Gatlin, Allyson Felix and Lauryn Williams were among a new wave of Olympians who sparkled, while established stars like Gail Devers, Allen Johnson and Stacy Dragila failed to even make any finals. Marion Jones went from five medals in Sydney to a goose-egg in Greece.

Andy Roddick, Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams left Athens with memories, not medals. The most successful American tennis player here ended up being Mardy Fish, whose silver tops anything he’s done at a Grand Slam event.

Rulon Gardner, the best story in Sydney, wasn’t able to defend his wrestling gold medal. He wasn’t too upset, though. The bronze he won was just as precious because of what he’d been through since 2000: a near-fatal snowmobile wreck that cost him a toe, a motorcycle crash and a dislocated wrist playing basketball.

Then there are the ones that got away, like shot putter Adam Nelson tying for first but getting silver on the tiebreaker because he fouled on all of his other throws.

And how about the 50-meter, three-position rifle event? Matt Emmons took a commanding lead into his final blast, then shot the wrong target. The goof sunk him to eighth and moved fellow American Michael Anti up to silver. Anti would’ve gotten gold if he hadn’t been penalized for firing too many shots in an earlier round.

As with any Olympics, this was the last hurrah for many champions.

Swimmer Jenny Thompson, who won two silvers to bump her American-best career medal total to 12, isn’t likely to be back for a fifth games.

Dawn Staley is calling it quits after leading the women’s basketball team to three straight golds. And the five stalwarts on the women’s soccer team — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly — are also going out in golden style.

“It’s not about the medal,” Hamm said, “it’s about the dream.”

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