United States at the Olympics

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United States at the
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NOCUnited States Olympic & Paralympic Committee
Ranked 1st
Summer appearances
Winter appearances
Other related appearances
1906 Intercalated Games

The United States of America (USA) has sent athletes to every celebration of the modern Olympic Games with the exception of the 1980 Summer Olympics, during which it led a boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) is the National Olympic Committee for the United States.

American athletes have won a total of 2,523 medals (1,022 of them gold) at the Summer Olympic Games and another 305 (105 of them gold) at the Winter Olympic Games, making the United States the most prolific medal-winning nation in the history of the Olympics. The US is ranked first in the all-time medal table even if all the incarnations of Russia and Germany are combined, leading the second-placed Russians by 402 gold and 917 total medals. These achievements are even more impressive considering the fact that the American Olympic team remains the only in the world to receive no government funding.[1][2][3]

Hosted Games[edit]

Swimmer Michael Phelps and President George W. Bush on August 10, 2008 at the National Aquatic Center in Beijing. Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.[4][5]

The United States has hosted or is the designated host of the Modern Games on nine occasions, more than any other nation:

Games Host city Dates Nations Participants Events
1904 Summer Olympics St. Louis, Missouri July 1–November 23 12 651 91
1932 Winter Olympics Lake Placid, New York February 7–15 17 252 14
1932 Summer Olympics Los Angeles, California July 30–August 14 37 1,332 117
1960 Winter Olympics Squaw Valley, California February 2–20 30 665 27
1980 Winter Olympics Lake Placid, New York February 13–24 37 1,072 38
1984 Summer Olympics Los Angeles, California July 28–August 12 140 6,829 221
1996 Summer Olympics Atlanta, Georgia July 19–August 4 197 10,318 271
2002 Winter Olympics Salt Lake City, Utah February 8–24 77 2,399 78
2028 Summer Olympics Los Angeles, California July 21–August 6 TBA TBA TBA

Medal tables[edit]

Francis Olympic Field of Washington University in St. Louis, site of the 1904 Olympics Games. The 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri were the first ever Olympic Games held outside of Europe.

The United States made its Olympic debut in 1896, when Athens hosted the very first edition of the modern games. The nation performed inconsistently in the pre-WW1 period primarily due to fielding considerably less athletes than hosting countries, with the exception being the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, where the US achieved its greatest medal haul in history, a record that still stands today. In the interwar period, America enjoyed its most successful spell, topping both gold and total medal counts at four straight Summer Games, before falling short in 1936, when Berlin hosted the games, and Germany used the event to push its political agenda. The next Olympics were held only in 1948 when WW2 hostilities ended. By this time, Germany was no longer a competitor to the US, with its place being taken by the Soviet Union, which went even further than the Germans and used the Olympics with a specific goal of pushing its ideological agenda. The Soviets clearly wanted to overtake the United States as a leading Olympic power and used any means they deemed necessary, including the use of professional athletes, something that was prohibited back then, and running a comprehensive state-sponsored doping program. The USSR ultimately achieved its goal, and after 20 years of fierce competition, it utterly thrashed America at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. After that, the US would not top the medal table in a non-boycotted games until the 1996 Summer Olympics, five years after the USSR collapsed.[6][7] The 1970s and 1980s, therefore, became a dark moment for American Olympic teams, as they significantly fell behind not only the Soviet Union, but also East Germany, USSR's satellite state. The only bright spot was the 1984 Games in Los Angeles where the United States set a record for most gold medals won in a single Olympics, 83, primarily due to the Soviet-led boycott. In the 1990s, the situation started improving, and the US returned to the leading positions in the Summer Olympics, topping the medal table five times since 1992 and placing second on two occasions.

Contrary to its Summer Olympics status, America was never really considered a power in the Winter Games until the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Therefore, its greatest achievements in the 20th century are more tied to specific events, rather than overall performances. However, hosting the games in 2002 gave a much needed boost to the US winter sports program, and since then the country performed consistently, never placing below fourth in the medal count, although America's performance has steadily declined since winning the most medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with the US winning only 23 medals at the most recent 2018 Games in Pyeongchang compared to 37 in 2010.

Red border color indicates host nation status.



Early Olympics (1896–1912)[edit]

Several members of America's first Olympic team in 1896. Standing: T.E. Burke, Thomas P. Curtis, Ellery H. Clark. Seated: W.W. Hoyt, Sumner Paine, trainer John Graham, John B. Paine, Arthur C. Blake.
Margaret Abbott competing in golf.

The very first modern Olympic Games that were held in Athens, Greece saw the Americans fielding 14 athletes that competed in three sports. The hosts, on the other hand, had 169 athletes competing and won 46 medals. The American team did its best, but managed to grab only 20 medals, being dwarfed by an enormous Greek team. However, the United States managed to get the most gold medals, 11, edging Greece that secured 10 golds. That allowed Team USA to finish first in the gold medal tally. James Connolly became the first modern Olympic champion by winning the triple jump, and Thomas Burke grabbed three gold medals in various track events, assuming the title of the most successful athlete of the 1896 Games.[10]

At the 1900 Paris Olympics, the US team featured 75 athletes, a significant increase compared to 1896, but still considerably less than the French hosts that fielded 720 competitors. The most notable of all American participants was Margaret Abbott who became the first female American Olympic champion by winning the women's golf. The vast majority of American medals were won in the sport of athletics where US athletes clinched 16 gold and 39 medals overall. Team USA won only 8 medals outside of track, four of them in golf. Overall, France dominated the medal standings, winning 29 gold and 112 total medals. The United States ranked second with 19 and 48, respectively, showing great efficiency, despite having significantly less athletes.[11]

The 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri were the first ever Olympic Games held outside of Europe.

Interwar period (1920–1936)[edit]

Jesse Owens achieved international fame at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany,Je by winning four gold medals: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 × 100-meter relay at Hitler's Berlin Games, disproving the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority.

Cold War era (1948–1992)[edit]

Bob Mathias became the star of the 1948 London games by winning the decathlon event at the age of 17. He would go on to repeat this feat at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, setting a new world record.

The 1948 London Olympics marked the first time that the newly communist countries, that were occupied by the Soviet Union after WW2, competed in the games. The Soviets themselves declined to compete, sending only observers, after a long hesitation that saw Soviet leader Joseph Stalin demanding guarantees from his sports officials that the USSR would beat the US in the medal standings. The Soviet officials told him that chances were 50/50, and Stalin ultimately rejected the idea of competing in 1948. With its newest political rival absent, the United States comfortably dominated the games, winning 38 gold and 84 total medals, 22 gold and 40 total medals more than the runner-up Sweden. The most medals were won in track and field, 27, and swimming, 15. The US basketball team won its second consecutive gold medal, defeating France in the final, 65–21.[12]

Gold medal game in basketball at the 1952 Olympics between the US and the USSR. The Americans won, 36–25.

In 1952, Helsinki saw the Soviets sending a team for the first time. This was a beginning of a new era, as the Soviet Union would go on to dominate the Olympics for the next four decades. The Soviets viewed the Olympics as international battlefield, where they can achieve their political goals by winning medals, thus proving their system's superiority.[13][14][15] The Soviet authorities also significantly bent the amateur rules, that were in place at the time, by providing state-funding to their athletes who trained full-time and, unlike American self-financed amateurs, were de facto professionals. That would start a significant controversy, that will result in the amateur rules being abolished, though only in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, meaning that the Soviets benefited from those rules throughout their Olympic history.[16] The United States still topped the medal count at these games, winning 40 gold and 76 total medals, 22 gold and 5 total medals more than the Soviets who finished second. American athletes won 31 medals in track and field, their most successful sport. US basketball team won its third consecutive gold, twice defeating the Soviets in the process, American boxers won all five finals they entered, and American weightlifters edged their Soviet rivals 4 to 3 in terms of gold medals, with the two nations sweeping all seven events in the sport.[17]

Bobby Morrow won gold in 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4x100 meters relay (track and field) at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.

Melbourne hosted the Olympics in 1956. There were calls for the expulsion of the Soviet Union following their invasion of Hungary, but the International Olympic Committee decided not to pursue any action. As a result, some nations boycotted the games in protest of the Soviets' presence, and the Hungarians themselves became engaged in a violent brawl with their Soviet counterparts in a water polo game, an event that was instantly called Blood in the Water. The US performance at the games was relatively successful, though it was getting harder and harder to compete with the Soviet machine. As a result, the Americans earned 32 gold and 78 total medals (second place in the medal standings), 5 gold and 24 total medals less than the first-placed Soviets. The US contingent was particularly successful in track and field, where American athletes amassed 31 medals. On the other hand, the US won only 2 golds in swimming, being unable to stop the Australian domination of the swimming events at these games. In weightlifting, the Americans and Soviets once again won all seven events, once again with a 4 to 3 ratio in favor of the US team. In boxing, the Soviets won 3 golds, while the Americans only managed to win two events. However, it was gymnastics where the USSR achieved its greatest success, winning 11 out of 17 events and guaranteeing the first place in the medal rankings. The US basketball team won its fourth consecutive gold, beating the Soviets in the final game, 89–55.[18]

Wilma Rudolph became the first woman in history to sweep 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4x100 meters relay at the 1960 Rome Games.

The 1960 Rome Olympics saw the Americans losing their grip on their traditionally successful sports, such as track and field and weightlifting. On the other hand, boxing, swimming (where the Americans won 9 gold medals, while being controversially denied gold in the 100 meters freestyle, despite showing the best time), and wrestling produced unexpectedly good results, which somewhat helped to compensate for what was lost in other sports. In track and field, the Soviets won 11 golds, only one less that the Americans. It is worth mentioning that the US team encountered many problems throughout the meet, such as a controversial disqualification of their gold medal-winning men's 4x100 relay team. In weightlifting, the Soviets, with the help of their state-of-the-art doping program, won five out of seven events, leaving the US with only one gold. 10 Soviet golds in gymnastics didn't surprise anyone, as the nation had always been a gymnastics powerhouse, but it did mean that the Soviets beat the Americans in the medal standings for the second straight summer games. The US basketball team, however, met the pre-tournament expectations and won its fifth consecutive gold medal, a noble feat, given that they had to compete against veteran pros from the USSR. The final result, 43 gold and 103 total medals for the Soviets to 34 gold and 71 total medals for the Americans, showed that America was no longer a leading force in Olympic competition.[19]

Don Schollander won 4 golds in swimming at the 1964 games in Tokyo, the largest individual medal haul in a single Olympics since Jesse Owens in 1936.

There was some redemption for the US at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, as the nation returned to the top of the gold medal count for the first time since 1952. Particularly successful was the US swimming team that won 13 out of available 18 golds and shattered 9 world records. In track and field, the Americans also improved on their 1960 performance, winning 14 gold and 24 total medals, while the Soviets left Japan with 5 gold and 18 total medals, a significant downturn compared to their 1960 results. The Soviets, however, continued to dominate Olympic weightlifting, and, with the American program falling apart, the USSR produced four golds and three silvers. The Soviet Union hoped to replicate that success in gymnastics and wrestling, the sports that, together with weightlifting, were strongly associated with their athletic prowess. However, they encountered a zealous resistance from the Japanese, who used their home-field advantage to stun the Soviets, beating them five to three in wrestling golds, and winning five gymnastics championships to their four. Thus, Japan had a major influence on the US–USSR medals race, and most certainly helped the Americans edge their biggest rivals, while also managing to produce its best ever medal output and finishing in third place. For the Americans, despite their dismal performance in boxing where they achieved only one gold, the 1964 Olympics were a definite success, with the nation winning 36 gold and 90 total medals compared to the Soviet tally of 30 gold and 96 total medals. Therefore, the US topped the gold medal count, finishing second in the total medal count, while the USSR topped the total medal count, finishing second in the gold medal count. The US basketball team won its sixth consecutive gold, beating the Soviets in the final, 73–59.[20]

There were many historic achievements at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics but, perhaps, the most significant among them was Bob Beamon's performance in the long jump, where he improved the world record by 55 centimeters.

The 1968 Mexico Olympics became the most successful summer games for the US in the post-war era. American athletes amassed 45 gold and 107 total medals, 16 gold and 16 total medals more than the second-placed Soviets. The US swimming team dominated the competition, winning a staggering 51 medals and sweeping the podium on five occasions. The Americans also managed to medal in every single of 29 swimming events, thus achieving a unique feat. The US track and field team pulled off a stellar performance as well with 15 gold and 28 total medals. Overall, swimming and athletics accounted for more than 70% of all US medals, and ensured the first place in the medal table for the Americans, their second consecutive first-place finish in terms of gold medals, and their first finish at the top of the overall medal table since 1952. In other sports, however, the performance of American athletes was less convincing. The US weightlifting team continued to fade away, winning just one medal (compared to 7 in 1956), American boxers won 7 medals, though only two of them gold, US divers won 6 medals, and the men's volleyball team managed to stun the defending champions from the Soviet Union, beating them in five sets, but still finished out of medals; Soviets ultimately won gold, with their lone loss being to the US. In gymnastics, Japan continued to frustrate the Soviets, once again surpassing them in the medal standings. Last but not least, the US basketball team won its seventh consecutive gold medal, a feat not matched by any other Olympic team in ball sports. Very few would have assumed that this was the last time that the US finished first in the medal table in a fully attended Summer Olympics until 1996 (the Americans would top the medal standings in 1984 with the Soviet Union and its satellites boycotting).[21]

The Munich Olympics saw the Soviet Union begin its streak of topping the medal count at five consecutive summer games in which they participated (1972–1992, though in 1992 they would compete as the Unified Team as the USSR dissolved half a year prior to the games, and the newly independent countries decided to compete together). The sporting nature of the event was largely overshadowed by the Munich massacre in the second week, in which eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer at Olympic village were killed by Black September terrorists. There were multiple calls to cancel the games after the terrorist attack, but the IOC declined. From a sporting standpoint, these games were one of the most controversial in history, with many accusing the organizing committee of anti-Americanism and trying to appease the Soviet Union and East Germany. Indeed, these were one the strangest Olympics ever for American athletes. US world record holders in the 100 meters were given the wrong starting time and were unable to compete in the event, thus paving the way for a Soviet to win. In swimming, the US gold medal winner in the 400 meters freestyle was stripped of his medal for using his prescription asthma medication, also depriving him of a chance at multiple medals. US boxers complained that they were judged unfairly in the bouts against their communist counterparts. In shooting, a US athlete initially won the 50 meters rifle only to be relegated to silver after a "review". Finally, in the most controversial event of the games, and one of the most controversial events of all time, the US basketball team was denied gold after apparently winning the final match against the Soviet Union. The final three seconds of the game were replayed three times until the Soviets came out on top. The Americans did not accept the silver medals, believing that they were robbed. This was the first US loss in Olympic basketball history and it ended the Americans' 63-game winning streak in Olympic basketball. In general, the US team greatly underperformed at these games, winning only 6 gold medals in track and field to the East Germans' 8 and Soviets' 9, though the Americans still won the most total medals, 22. In boxing, the Cubans and Soviets dominated, winning three and two championships, respectively, while the US won only one gold and four medals overall (compared to the Soviets' two and Cubans' five). In diving, the Americans won three medals; in soccer, the USSR and GDR fixed a bronze medal game, playing a tie, so both teams received bronze; in gymnastics, the Soviets edged their old rivals Japan to top the medal count; in weightlifting, the Soviets and Bulgarians won three golds each; in wrestling, the US team surprised with three golds in freestyle, yet the Soviets still dwarfed their medal tally with nine golds in freestyle and Greco-Roman (14–6 in total medals). In water polo, the Americans struck bronze, tying the eventual gold medalists the Soviet Union in the final round. Swimming was the only sport where the American team did not disappoint, winning 17 gold and 43 total medals, a good result, but still less than four years earlier. American women dominated swimming for the last time until 1992, as by 1976 they would be overtaken by East German dopers.[22]

In 1976, Margaret Murdock captured the silver in the three positions shooting event. Lanny Bassham and Murdock tied for the first place, but Murdock was placed second after review of the targets. Bassham suggested that two gold medals be given, and after this request was declined, asked Murdock to share the top step with him at the award ceremony. Women had no separate shooting events at the time and were allowed to compete with men. Murdock became the first woman to win an Olympic medal in shooting.[23]

The Eastern Bloc utterly dominated the 1976 Montreal Olympics, with seven communist countries placing in the top ten of the medal table. The United States team was relegated to a third place in the medal standings for the first time in its history, courtesy of Soviet and East German doping systems and their use of professional athletes. This was the Olympics of contrasts: the US men's swimming team, despite a generally dismal showing of the delegation, completely obliterated their sport, sweeping 12 gold and 27 total medals in the 13 events that were on the program and shattering 11 world records in the process (this was arguably the most dominant performance of any swimming team in history),[24] while the US women's swimming team, on the other hand, fell victim to the unbeatable East German dopers. They still managed to win a gold medal, in a shocking upset against East Germans in the 4x100 freestyle relay. The event was held on the last day of the swimming program, and the American women were risking to get shut out of gold for the first time in the US Olympic history. The victory was somewhat overlooked at the time, but since the early 1990s, when the crimes of the Soviet Bloc started to unravel, their gold medal is often considered to be one of the most improbable and heroic upsets of all time.[25] In track and field, both the US men's and women's team were overwhelmed by East Germans who, as their Soviet masters expected, stole away a bulk of medals from the US in its signature sports, thus allowing the Soviets to win the medal table virtually unchallenged. The US boxing team surprised everyone, advancing to six gold medal bouts and winning five of them, drawing parallels to a stellar 1952 team that also took 5 golds. The achievement was even more momentous due to the fact that the American boxers were significantly younger and less experienced than their Cuban and Soviet counterparts.[26] In other sports, US divers won 5 medals, including two golds; the US equestrian team took home 4 medals; American shooters won three medals, including a historic silver by a woman in the mixed 50 meters rifle three positions; US freestyle wrestlers advanced to four gold medal bouts, yet won only one of them (all four were against the Soviets), concluding the meet with 6 medals overall. The US men's basketball team reclaimed the gold medal, while the women's team won a surprising silver, being ranked no higher than sixth prior to the start of the tournament. The Soviets and East Germans were unstoppable in canoeing, gymnastics, rowing, weightlifting and wrestling, going 1–2 in the medal standings (49 gold and 125 total medals for the Soviets, and 40 gold and 90 total medals for East Germans). The US won medals in 14 sports, finishing third with 34 gold and 94 total medals. The most successful day for the Americans was July 31 when they won 8 gold and 18 total medals.[27]

The 1980 Summer Olympics marked another first for the United States, as the nation led by far the largest and most significant boycott in the Olympic history. The boycott was motivated by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as well as by flagrant human rights violations in the USSR, and the regime's anti-Semitic policies.[28][29][30][31][32] The Soviet state-run media ridiculed the Americans as sore losers who couldn't get over the fact that they were no longer a perennial Olympic power, and simply didn't want to be embarrassed by the Soviets who would thrash them in the medal count. Indeed, all medal predictions pointed to an inevitable Soviet victory with 55–60 gold medals. East Germans were forecast to win 40–45 gold medals, while the Americans would wind up in third place with 30–35 golds. However, the world would never know what would have happened, as the United States and 65 other countries chose not to attend the Moscow Games, leaving them with the smallest attendance since 1956. Predictably, the great majority of the medals were taken by the host country and East Germany in what was the most skewed medal tally since 1904.[33] The Soviets amassed 80 gold (all-time record) and 195 total (second-best result after the US in 1904) medals in their anticlimactic performance.[34]

President Ronald Reagan and Mary Lou Retton with the U.S. Olympic Team in Los Angeles, 1984. she had just recovered in time from surgery. She put forth a valiant effort for the all-around title, and in the end Retton exploded for two perfect 10s and defeated her Soviet-bloc competitor by .05 points for the gold medal.

In 1984, Los Angeles witnessed what was considered a retaliatory boycott by the Soviets and their satellites, although the Soviets cited security concerns and "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States." However, no threat to Eastern Bloc athletes was ever discovered, and the athletes from the Eastern Bloc country that did attend the 1984 games in Los Angeles—Romania—encountered no problems, and in fact were widely cheered above all other visiting nations at the Opening Ceremonies when they marched into the Coliseum (Romania ended up finishing third in overall medal count at the Games). The move by the Soviets left many "dumbfounded", as it was expected that they would try to thrash the US on their soil, thus achieving a significant propaganda victory. The forecasts again heavily favored the Soviet Union, with the Soviet athletes being expected to rack up 60–65 gold medals compared to 35–45 by the second-placed Americans. That didn't happen. Furthermore, despite the Soviet boycott, a record 140 nations (including China that participated for the first time since 1952) attended the games.[35]

There were fears that the Soviet Union would boycott the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul as well because South Korea had no diplomatic relations with the USSR, which recognised and supported only North Korea. However, the policies of Perestroika that were initiated by Gorbachev in 1985 led to the Soviet participation in the games. Cuba, clearly not understanding such a betrayal, decided to boycott the Olympics on its own, impacting the boxing field as a result. The Soviet Union was steadily moving towards its ultimate collapse but its sporting empire was still in its prime. The Soviets and their close allies from East Germany utterly dominated the games, winning 55 and 37 gold medals respectively (132 and 102 total medals).

During the Cold War period the Americans did their best to challenge the Soviets, but the playing field wasn't level. The Soviet athletes were funded by the state and trained full-time, while the US strictly obeyed the amateur rules and its athletes were primarily self-financed students who were significantly younger and less experienced than the Soviet veterans. In addition to that, the Soviets developed a state-sponsored doping system, and supplied performance-enhancing drugs to the vast majority of their athletes.[36] Furthermore, they heavily invested in the development of a similar system in their satellite nation, East Germany, with a specific goal of making East Germans highly competitive in swimming and track and field, so that they can reduce the number of medals the Americans win in their signature sports. Unfortunately for the US, the Soviet strategy worked, and the gap between the USSR and US widened every four years until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1972, the Soviets won 50 gold and 99 total medals to the Americans' 33 and 94; in 1976, the USSR amassed 49 gold and 125 total medals to the Americans' 34 and 94; 1980 Olympics were boycotted by the US and its allies, the Soviets retaliated in 1984 by boycotting the LA Olympics together with their satellites; finally, in 1988, the USSR won 55 gold and 132 total medals to the Americans' 36 and 94 (the US finished third at those games, losing even to the East Germans). In 1992, the Soviets still fielded a team despite the dissolution of their state, yet the margin of their victory over the Americans became narrower: 45 gold and 112 total medals to the Americans' 37 and 108. By 1996, every former Soviet republic formed its own National Olympic Committee, and the countries participated as independent nations, with Russia assuming the Soviet place in the IOC and inheriting Soviet achievements as by far the largest of the former Soviet republics. So, in 1996, the Americans finally managed to return to the top spot in the medal rankings, winning 44 gold and 101 total medals compared to 26 gold and 63 total medals won by the second-placed Russians, thanks to the partial abolition of the amateur rules in the early 1990s (the American athletes still weren't state-sponsored, unlike their foreign counterparts, but they were now eligible for prize money and sponsorships). They were still disadvantaged by these rules in those sports where they weren't abolished (i.e. boxing, baseball, where Cubans continued to field state-sponsored pros against American amateurs), but the situation started improving.

Modern period (1994–present)[edit]

Amateurism and professionalism[edit]

The exclusion of professionals caused several controversies throughout the history of the modern Olympics. The 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics. His medals were posthumously restored by the IOC in 1983 on compassionate grounds.[37]

The advent of the state-sponsored "full-time amateur athlete" of the Eastern Bloc countries eroded the ideology of the pure amateur, as it put the self-financed amateurs of the Western countries at a disadvantage. The Soviet Union entered teams of athletes who were all nominally students, soldiers, or working in a profession, but all of whom were in reality paid by the state to train on a full-time basis.[38][39] The situation greatly disadvantaged American athletes, and was a major factor in the decline of American medal hauls in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, the Olympics shifted away from amateurism, as envisioned by Pierre de Coubertin, to allowing participation of professional athletes, but only in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its influence within the International Olympic Committee.[40][41]

Russia–United States rivalry[edit]

Russia (in all its incarnations) and the United States have won more Olympic medals than any other nation.[42] Russia topped the overall medal count at 7 Summer Olympics and 9 Winter Olympics, while the United States placed first at 17 Summer Olympics and 1 Winter Olympics. The countries developed a strong rivalry during the Cold War, and while the tensions eased in the 1990s, the relations deteriorated in 2014 and 2016.[43]

Since the 1952 Summer Olympics, Russia has won 1912 Summer and Winter Olympics medals, the most in that period, while the United States has won 1873 medals, the second most in that period. Detailed comparison is presented below.

Summer Olympics[edit]

Medal totals of the Soviet Union/Unified Team/Russia[44][45][46] and the United States[47] since 1952, when the Soviet Union started to compete.

Overall, the United States (18961976, 1984–present) has won 1,022 gold and 2,523 total medals, and Russia (1900, 19081912, 19521980, 1988–present) has won 589 gold and 1,556 total medals.

Winter Olympics[edit]

Medal totals of the Soviet Union/Unified Team/Russia/Olympic Athletes from Russia[44][45][46] and the United States[47] since 1956, when the Soviet Union started to compete and successfully topping in 9 editions, leaving America with the only winning in 1932 edition as a host country.

Overall, the United States (1924–present) has won 105 gold and 305 total medals, and Russia (1956–present) has won 136 gold and 354 total medals.


Inside view (in 2014) of the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle, where the final was played

The United States and Soviet Union sporting adversary reached its peak during the Cold war. The U.S. men's team was considered a favorite in the run-up to the 1972 Games. Since the first Olympic basketball tournament at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Americans haven't lost a single game, winning seven consecutive gold medals in a dominating fashion. Their record reached an unprecedented 63-0 before the final game. Since the 1952 tournament the Soviet team challenged the Americans, winning silver in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964 and bronze in 1968. Outside of the Olympics, the Soviets had already defeated the U.S. team in the World Championship play. However, the Americans never sent their best collegiate players to that tournament.

It is important to note that the Olympics strictly prohibited any involvement of professional athletes at the time. The Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries used that rule to their advantage, listing all its top players as soldiers or workers what allowed them to breach the amateur rules. Western experts classified these athletes as professionals.[48] On the other hand, leading American players were unable to play in the Olympics as they were officially professional and played in the NBA. That disadvantage hadn't prevented the Americans from winning the first seven Olympic basketball tournaments without a single defeat.

The confrontation of the Soviet Union and United States on the basketball court was deeply connected to the confrontation on the political front. Many American viewers assumed that 1972 Games were openly anti-American.[49] There were rumors that the Communist party had bribed the officials because they wanted the USSR to win 50 gold medals at these Olympics in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union.[50]

The United States team was the youngest in history. American players usually participated in the Olympics once before turning pro, and the U.S. team always had new players every four years. The 1972 team didn't have a clear leader. A rising star Bill Walton declined an invitation to participate. Nevertheless, the team was heavily favored featuring such players as Doug Collins or Tommy Burleson (the tallest player among all teams).

The 1992 "Dream Team" was the first American Olympic team to feature National Basketball Association (NBA) players

The young American team was confronted by a veteran Soviet team, featuring stars Sergei Belov, Modestas Paulauskas, and Alexander Belov. The players had played together for more than seven years. For Gennadi Volnov it was the fourth Olympic appearance.

The Soviets performed strongly at the beginning, winning the first half 26:21. The Soviets kept the Americans 4–8 points behind during the first half.

In the second half Soviets targeted Dwight Jones, as they considered him the leader of the U.S. team. On the 28th minute he was provoked by Mikheil Korkia and responded. Both players were sent off. The Soviets were satisfied, as they deemed Korkia less significant for them than Jones for the Americans. The next minute Alexander Belov hit Jim Brewer during the free-throw, and Brewer was unable to continue playing. According to the Americans, the referees did not notice the foul.

With 10 minutes left, the Soviets increased their lead to 10 points. After that Americans finally started to press the Soviets. It helped them to cut the deficit to 1 point. Soviet players started to feel nervous. With less than a minute left, Doug Collins stole a Soviet pass at halfcourt and was fouled hard by Zurab Sakandelidze as he drove toward the basket, being knocked down into the basket stanchion. With three seconds remaining on the game clock, Collins was awarded two free throws and sank the first to tie the score at 49. Just as Collins lifted the ball to begin his shooting motion in attempting the second free throw, the horn from the scorer's table sounded, marking the beginning of a chain of events that left the game's final three seconds mired in controversy. Although the unexpected sound of the horn caused lead referee Renato Righetto to turn away from the free throw attempt and look over to the scorer's table, play was not stopped. Collins never broke his shooting motion and continued with his second free throw, scoring to put the U.S. ahead by a score of 50:49. Immediately following Collins' free throws, the Soviets inbounded the ball and failed to score. Soviet coaches claimed that they had requested a timeout before Collins' foul shots. The referees ordered the clock reset to three seconds and the game's final seconds replayed. The horn sounded as a length-of-the-court Soviet pass was being released from the inbounding player, the pass missed its mark, and the American players began celebrating. Nevertheless, final three seconds were replayed for a third time. This time, the Soviets' Alexander Belov and the USA's Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes went up for the pass, and Belov caught the long pass from Ivan Edeshko near the American basket. Belov then laid the ball in for the winning points as the buzzer sounded.

The Americans regained the basketball crown in 1976, but their ability to stay competitive with college players against seasoned professionals from the Soviet Union was decreasing. In 1988, the Soviets beat the United States once again, eliminating them in the semifinals. That game was a turning point in international basketball, as FIBA officials started to realize that amateur rules were extremely unfair. In 1989, NBA players were finally allowed in the Olympics.

Ice hockey[edit]

An amateur photo featuring U.S. vs USSR matchup

The 1980 hockey game between the U.S. and USSR was dubbed the "Miracle on Ice", when American college players defeated the heavily favored seasoned professionals from the Soviet Union on the way to a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet Union had won the gold medal in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games, and were the favorites to win once more. Though ice hockey is not a major sport in most areas of the United States, the "Miracle" is often listed as one of the all-time greatest American sporting achievements. The U.S. also won the gold medal in the 1960 Games at Squaw Valley, California, defeating the Soviet Union, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden along the way. However, since this victory is not as well known as the 1980 win, it has come to be known as the "Forgotten Miracle".[51][52]

The U.S. and the Soviet Union next met at the Olympics in 1988. As in 1980, the Soviets were represented by their star-studded veterans, while the Americans fielded a team of college players. The Soviets won the encounter 7–5 and went on to win the gold medal, while the U.S. placed seventh.

The two teams met again at the 1992 Olympics in a semi-final match. There, the Unified Team (the successor to the Soviet Union) won 5–2. While some stars had left the Soviet Union to play in the NHL, the Unified Team still boasted many veterans from their domestic professional league, while the Americans were represented primarily by college players. The Unified Team eventually won the gold medal, while the U.S. placed fourth.

The U.S. and Russia (the successor to the Unified Team) met twice at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. The Americans won both games 5-2 en route to the tournament championship.

The U.S., coached by Herb Brooks, and Russia, coached by Slava Fetisov, met twice in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which included a 2–2 round-robin draw and a 3–2 semi-final win for the Americans. The semi-final match was played 22 years to the day after the "Miracle on Ice" game. The U.S. eventually won silver, while Russia won bronze.

The two teams met in the quarterfinals of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, with the U.S. earning a decisive 5–3 victory.

The U.S. and Russia played each other in a round-robin game at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The game was tied 2–2 after overtime before the Americans prevailed in an eight-round shootout, with T.J. Oshie scoring on 4 of 6 attempts for the United States. The match has been dubbed by some as the "Marathon on Ice" due to its length.[53] Both teams, however, failed to medal; the Americans finished fourth (losing in the semis to Canada and to Finland in the bronze medal game), while the Russians placed fifth (losing to Finland in the quarterfinals).

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]