RIO DE JANEIRO — When Simone Manuel touched the wall to clinch a gold medal Saturday night, it was a moment 120 years in the making.
The U.S. women’s 4×100-meter medley relay team of Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Manuel — winners at the Rio Games on Saturday night — is being recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee as delivering the nation’s 1,000th gold medal in Summer Olympics history.
By their count, anyway. Keeping count of the gold total is not as exact a science as one might think.
The count accepted by the U.S. Olympic Committee coming into the Rio Games was 977 gold medals, and even that was adjusted a bit in recent weeks over a debated medal from the 1904 St. Louis Games.
That means the gold medal in the women’s eights on Saturday morning was the 21st for the Americans in Rio, and No. 998 overall. Some sites say there’s a few more, some say a bit less. The USOC count is the accepted one.
And the relay win was No. 23 in Rio, so by the USOC’s count that made it official.
“A gold medal is like a newborn baby,” said long jumper Jeff Henderson, who put the U.S. on the brink with gold No. 999 earlier Saturday night. “It’s just lovely.”
Lovely, 1,000 times over now for the Americans.
“A remarkable achievement made possible by the culture of sport that is the fabric and foundation of Team USA,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said Saturday night.
James Connolly won the first for the U.S. in 1896, and of course no one has added more to the total than Michael Phelps, a 23-time gold medalist. Illustrating how not-so-simple this medal-counting business is, the official info portal for the Rio Games even has a different number than the USOC, saying the one the Americans will recognize as No. 1,000 is really No. 1,001.
Whatever the real number, the U.S. is the first to reach four figures — in a landslide. The Soviet Union remains No. 2 on the all-time summer gold list, and no other nation has even reached 500.
“Here’s the significance: The next four best nations had 1,004 gold medals coming into Rio,” said Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian. “You add up the next four and they barely have more than we do.”
At its current rate, China wouldn’t reach 1,000 golds until 2100. Germany wouldn’t get there until 2204.
But there have been some very interesting story lines on the U.S. road to 1,000. Consider some of them:
THE DEMONT CASE
If Rick DeMont had his way, gold medal No. 1,000 would really be identified as gold medal No. 1,001.
Or maybe even No. 1,002.
DeMont was 16 when he won gold in the 400-meter freestyle at the Munich Games in 1972. But he tested positive for ephedrine, which was part of his asthma medication, and stripped of the medal days later along with a chance to compete in a 1,500-meter event.
His saga, however, doesn’t stop there.
DeMont tried for decades to get the medal back, saying he was wronged because the USOC did not properly disclose to Olympic officials that he was on medication — and that if they had done so, his ephedrine level would not have led to his ban. In 2001, the USOC recognized DeMont for his achievements and said it was bringing him “back into the Olympic family.”
But the International Olympic Committee — in part out of concern for setting a precedent that could lead to enormous numbers of athletes contesting results — declined later that year to consider restoring DeMont’s gold over the USOC paperwork mix-up. So the gold remains awarded to Bradford Cooper of Australia. Cooper now owns a swimming school in his homeland while DeMont is the swimming coach at Arizona.
“It was so long ago that it almost seems like it happened to another person in another life,” DeMont said Saturday. “I don’t carry it with me.”
THE ST. LOUIS GAMES
No matter how well the U.S. does in these Rio Games, the medal count this year won’t come close to the St. Louis Games in 1904.
Officially, here’s the count from that Olympics for the U.S.: 79 golds (it had been 78 until recently, when one medal that was counted as being won by a mixed-nationality team was added to the U.S. total because five of the six members were Americans, along with one Austrian), 78 silver and 79 bronze — 236 medals in all.
Germany was second in the medals standings, with 13.
“There is no wrong or right,” Mallon said. “It’s an interpretation.”
The Olympic website describes those St. Louis Games as being “lost in chaos.” They lasted nearly five months, had a marathoner disqualified for using a car on the route, saw gymnast George Eyser win six medals despite having a wooden leg and featured events such as dumbbells and tug-of-war.
About half the official competitions in those games had only American entrants, and some historians have suggested that even some of the athletes who are listed as part of the U.S. team likely were newly arrived immigrants who either hadn’t become citizens yet or never actually completed that process.
THE 1906 GAMES
You might not know about them, since they don’t count.
Held in Athens, Greece, they were considered an Olympics at the time — though aren’t now recognized by the IOC, so the medal counts appear in no official lists. Though unlike the St. Louis Games two years earlier, this had more of a normal Olympic program.
There were 78 events and medals were awarded; there even was a true opening ceremony. The U.S. was second to France in the medal standings, winning 12 golds to their 15.
So while little debates and differing counts will likely continue, the U.S. dominance isn’t in question. And maybe it was fitting that Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever with 28 medals helped start the march toward the next milestone Saturday night, when the final swim of his career — part of a win in a relay — delivered gold No. 1,001.
“It’s the Olympics,” said U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, a five-time winner of Olympic gold. “It’s the pinnacle of our sport … and we feed off of each other.”