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August 29, 2004 6:59 pm

USA surpasses its medals goal

By VICKI MICHAELIS

USA TODAY

ATHENS, Greece - Steven Lopez's gold medal in the Athens Olympic taekwondo competition was No. 2 for him. He's thinking of it right now, though, as No. 98.

Lopez's victory Saturday was one of a flurry of medals at the Games' finish that pushed the United States over its publicly stated goal of 100 medals and kept the U.S. team on top of the medal count for a third consecutive Olympics.

``I'm just so happy I could contribute to our medal count,'' Lopez said. ``I was No. 98.''

That No. 100 came with the men's basketball team's bronze medal finish was a fitting metaphor for the USA's performance in Athens.

From the one-run-allowed effort of the women's softball team to swimmer Michael Phelps' historic eight medals, the USA shone. But disappointments, the faltering of basketball's ``Dream Team'' chief among them, dulled the burnish.

``You get some good luck and you get some bad luck, but you hope over 17 days it all balances out,'' says Jim Scherr, interim chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The USA finished with 103 medals, its highest total since winning 108 at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Thirty-five of the U.S. medals in Athens were gold, the lowest total since 1976.

``I don't think we're disappointed at all in the number of gold medals won,'' Scherr said, calling the U.S. athletes' performance ``an exceptional accomplishment given the difficult competitive environment that exists in today's world.''

Phelps won the USA's first medal of the Athens Games, an expected victory in the 400-meter individual medley. Mebrahtom Keflezighi won the last, a shocking silver medal in the men's marathon.

In between, the USA made history and made mistakes, snapped medal droughts and blunted assumptions of dominance. Some highlights and lowlights:

- Phelps became the first Olympian in a non-boycotted Games to win eight medals - six golds and two bronzes.

Phelps fell one gold short of matching Mark Spitz's seven-gold haul from the 1972 Olympics but still etched his name in the history books. He equaled Soviet gymnast Alexander Dityatin's medal total from the 1980 Olympics, which were boycotted by the United States and more than 50 other countries.

``Being able to be part of Olympic history, being in the same sort of sentence with Carl Lewis, with Mark Spitz, with a lot of the major Olympic athletes, I can't ask for anything more than that,'' Phelps said.

- The 2004 men's basketball team became the first Dream Team since NBA players began competing in the Olympics in 1992 to not win gold.

With NBA All-Stars such as Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett opting out, a team co-captained by Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan was overmatched by sharp-shooting international players and lost games to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina.

``I don't think the rest of the world has reached the United States,'' said Manu Ginobili, who led Argentina to the gold medal and is Duncan's teammate on the San Antonio Spurs, ``but to be assured to win, they have to bring the best. In 1992, you had (Michael) Jordan, (Larry) Bird and Magic Johnson, three of the greatest players ever. Here, they are great players too, but they are young. They never played internationally ... it's a whole different game.''

- The U.S. women's teams repeated their trifecta of the 1996 Olympics, winning gold in softball, basketball and soccer. U.S. women also won gold and bronze in beach volleyball and in saber fencing, plus two medals in the new Olympic sport of women's wrestling.

The softball team allowed just one run in Athens. The basketball team enjoyed an average 29.1-point margin of victory until they reached the semifinals. The soccer team regained its position atop the world after losing at the 2000 Olympics and in last year's World Cup, giving its retirement-bound core players a going-away gold.

``It's not about the medal; it's about the journey,'' said the most famous of those players, Mia Hamm, who was elected to carry the U.S. flag Sunday.

- The USA won no medals in diving for the first time, but U.S. gymnasts reversed their shutout at the 2000 Olympics by winning nine medals, including golds in the men's and women's all-around.

The 0-fer in diving continues a downward trend in a sport the USA once could count on for multiple medals. Laura Wilkinson's surprise gold in the women's platform was the USA's only diving medal in Sydney four years ago. ``It's not fun to know on your watch, history was made,'' U.S. Olympic diving coach Ken Armstrong said.

- U.S. men's sprinters ruled, winning the gold and bronze in the 100 meters and sweeping the 200 and 400, helping to ease some of the dismay over baton-passing gaffes in the men's and women's 4x100 relays.

``When we saw the 400-meter sweep, I got a little jealous,'' said Gatlin, who won the 100 early in the meet, then won a bronze in the 200.

- Keflezighi, with his silver, and Deena Kastor, with bronze, ended the USA's 20-year medal drought in the marathon.

No U.S. runner had medaled in the marathon since Joan Benoit Samuelson won in 1984. Kastor's breakthrough came first, on the fabled route of the first marathon. ``It was just an incredible, spiritual feeling to retrace those historic steps and take that journey from Marathon making our way into Athens,'' Kastor said.

- (Contributing: David DuPree, Tom Weir, Dick Patrick of USA TODAY)

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

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IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

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DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

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LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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