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U.S. Women Are The Biggest Winners At The Rio Olympics

The U.S. women's basketball team poses Saturday after winning its sixth straight gold medal and its 49th straight game in the Olympics. The team's success reflects the growing dominance of U.S. women in recent Olympiads. The U.S. women have won more medals than the American men in the past two Summer Games.
Charlie Neibergall

No one is flying home from Rio with more medals than the U.S. women.

The full American squad — both men and women — won the most medals overall, 121, as has often been the case in the Summer Games. But first in London four years ago, and again in Rio, the U.S. women have captured most of those medals.

The U.S. women took 61, the men had 55, and there were five in mixed events, including equestrian and mixed-doubles tennis.

How good were the American women?

They won 27 of the 46 American golds. If the U.S. were divided into two countries, one male and the other female, those 27 golds for the women would tie them with Britain for most of any country, put them one ahead of China, and far ahead of the American men and everyone else.

This trend became clear in London, where American women won 58 medals of all colors, compared with 45 for U.S. men, the first time the women outpaced their male counterparts.

As we noted before the Rio games, American women were not always such a powerhouse.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, American women won 23 medals compared with 71 for the U.S. men. The women didn't win a single medal in gymnastics and had no golds in track and field.

But that same year, the U.S. Congress passed , barring sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. This has helped revolutionize women's sports at both the high school and college levels.

American women are now dominant in many sports, including gymnastics, swimming, basketball, rowing, water polo and soccer. Americans took gold in all of those sports, except soccer, where they were upset by Sweden.

The U.S. had the largest overall team in Rio with 554 members, and the women (291) outnumbered the men (263) for the second straight Olympiad.

A range of factors

Other factors have helped American women at the Olympics over the past few decades.

Additional sports for women are added with regularity, including rugby in Rio. Top U.S. gymnasts emerge from the countless private gyms around the country, not through schools. And the former juggernauts from Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union and East Germany, either don't exist or aren't what they used to be during their Communist eras.

Still, American athletes in Rio turned in extraordinary performances by any measure. Consider:

  • Simone Biles won four golds and a bronze, making her the most decorated U.S. gymnast ever in a single Olympics.
  • Sprinter Allyson Felix took two golds in relays and a silver in the 400 meters. That boosted her to six career golds, the most in track by any woman from any country, and nine medals overall in her four Olympics.
  • Katie Ledecky hauled in four golds and a silver as she smashed the world record in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyles along the way. At just 19, she could be even better in Tokyo in 2020.
  • A few other notes on the final medal table:

  • China, which has surged as an Olympic force since it first competed in the 1984 Summer Games, has been dropping off. The country went from a peak of 100 medals in Beijing in 2008 to 88 in London to 70 in Rio.
  • Nearly a third of the Russian team was barred from Rio due to a doping scandal, and that's reflected in the medal count. Russians won 77 medals in London and just 56 in Rio.
  • New Zealand and Jamaica were once again the biggest overachievers. New Zealand, home to just 4 million, won 18 medals, up from 13 in London, and in a range of sports that included rowing, sailing, cycling, canoeing, rugby, golf and track and field. Jamaica, with fewer than 3 million people, relied on its blazing sprinters to win 11 medals, just one short of its tally in London.
  • The host country usually gets a significant medal boost, but Brazil received a relatively modest one, going from 17 medals in London to 19 in Rio. But it was the country's best showing ever. And Brazil did win its first Olympic gold in soccer on a penalty kick by Neymar. There's no way you can measure that in numbers.
  • Katie Daugert contributed the research to this report.

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    Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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