The Americans’ efforts have produced results that might be the envy of the world but have fallen short of their recent lofty standards.
The U.S. Olympic team is in danger of losing the gold medal race for the first time in a Summer Olympics since 2008.
Poised to win about 106 medals based on the final rounds of competition through Sunday, it will slip back to roughly on par with 2012, when it won 104 medals. The team won a record 121 medals in 2016, and 46 of them were gold, two fewer than the mark the Chinese set for gold medals in 2008 in Beijing.
The blame for the shortfall can be spread around. The vaunted track team won 32 medals in Rio but has just 22 heading into the final night. American men have not won a gold medal in the speed events that have been their bread and butter since the days of Jesse Owens.
The U.S. women’s soccer team, the two-time defending World Cup champions, lost twice and settled for a bronze medal. Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast ever, missed the bulk of the meet as she battled mental stress. American rowers failed to make the Olympic podium for the first time since 2008. Even in rowing, the women’s eight boat team, the three-time defending gold medalists, came up empty.
With just a handful of events left, the Americans have won 31 gold medals and 98 overall this year, even though there were more events than ever at these Games, with several new competitions in sports that Americans were expected to excel at, such as surfing and skateboarding, but didn’t.
There were 339 events in Tokyo, compared with just over 300 at the Rio Games in 2016.
With the slip in American dominance, several other countries, notably Japan, whose athletes played at home and did not have to deal with the hassles of travel, and China, have surged.
Japan, with 51 medals through Friday night, surged past its tally of 41 medals, including 12 gold, won in Rio. In these Games, it has 24 gold. In skateboarding alone it won five of the 12 medals, including three golds.
Host nations generally do better than normal because they invest heavily in sports in the years leading up to the Games, but nearly doubling a double-digit gold medal tally (without doping) is unheard of in recent Olympic history.
Also, after eight years of backtracking, China’s Olympic sports machine has returned. The Chinese, with 36 golds compared to 31 for the U.S., have a shot at winning the gold medal race for the first time since 2008.
Australia is having a really good Olympics, too, on the strength of arguably its best performance in the pool, winning 20 swimming medals, nine of them gold, after years of frustration.
Notably all three of those countries experienced the pandemic in a far different way than the United States.
And yet, for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, these numbers both matter and don’t. Its executives say they want to win as many medals as possible, but after the one-year postponement of the Games and pandemic restrictions at home, officials said just getting athletes to Tokyo, competing and returning safely would be a victory.
“Given the high degree of uncertainty until recently about whether these games would even happen, the detraining when the Games got postponed, and then retraining, and then focus on trials, and then coming here and working through all the countermeasures and the guidelines and the testing, in the face of all that to perform as well as we did, I am incredibly proud of this team,” said Rick Adams, chief of sport performance for the Olympic committee.
For years, winning medals was the singular priority of the U.S.O.P.C. Executives even received bonuses based on how athletes performed at the Olympics.
That all changed after the sexual assault scandal perpetrated by Lawrence G. Nassar, the longtime doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics, who is serving what amounts to life in prison for abusing hundreds of girls and young women. The case forced the resignations of the top leadership of both the gymnastics federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee after they were criticized for prioritizing winning above the health and safety of athletes.
Their messaging is changing, if not the goal of winning a lot of medals.
“Is the U.S. coming here hoping to win a lot of medals? You bet we are,” said Sarah Hirshland, the organization’s chief executive. But, she added, “competitive excellence in Tokyo may simply be personal bests for American athletes.”
The run-up to these Games for American athletes was far from ideal. They dealt with a series of on-and-off lockdowns and the repercussions of social and political upheaval that a number have cited as throwing them mentally off balance.
The Olympic committee, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo., took a stringent approach to how athletes prepared for the Games. Long after Colorado lifted restrictions on pools and gyms, the Olympic committee continued to limit access to its Olympic Training Center.
U.S.A. Swimming could not hold its usual spring camp at the high altitude training center. A training center that can house hundreds of athletes had about 70 residents, with a lengthy quarantine period required for anyone who arrived, as officials feared a coronavirus outbreak among potential Olympians.
“We said all along we were going to prioritize the health and safety of our athletes and we did,” Adams said.
With facilities closed on and off throughout the country the past year, athletes had to improvise.
Boxers had to set up rings in shopping malls. With tracks closed in California, Allyson Felix, the veteran sprinter, spent months running up and down the boulevards in Los Angeles, where she lives.
“It’s been a long year,” said Noah Lyles, the American sprinter, another world champion in track and field who left Tokyo without a gold medal. After he earned the bronze medal in the 200 meters, Lyles spoke emotionally to reporters about going on and off anti-depressants during the past year and struggling to not let his race times and medals define him.
“I’m not the next Usain Bolt,” he said.
Grant Holloway, who got silver in the 110-meter hurdles, summed up his performance the way a lot of his teammates have described their own in the past two weeks.
“Not the outcome I wanted,” Holloway said.
In June, Holloway, 23, came within a hundredth of a second of breaking the world record. He is the reigning world champion and had not lost a hurdles race all year until Tokyo.
The American track team opted not to hold a training camp before the Olympics, a safeguard against one person showing up with Covid-19 and exposing the whole team, a decision that has been questioned in recent days. Max Siegel, the head of U.S.A. Track and Field, declined to comment.
Several athletes have spoken of losing the joy that usually comes with training and competing, of Olympic preparation turning into a job, which it is for many, though it usually does not feel that way.
Pat Hinchey, chief executive of U.S.A. Swimming, said he was surprised American swimmers performed as well as they did, winning 30 medals, compared with 33 in Rio, and 11 gold medals, compared with 16 five years ago, plus several fourth place finishes.
The team had 16 newcomers, its largest crop of Olympic debuts for some time, including 11 teenagers. Several got faster between the U.S. trials in June and the start of the Olympics one month later, thanks to an intense camp in Hawaii.
“What we have all gone through was going to present challenges for everybody,” Hinchey said. “These kids were out of the water for months. They had to go through an extra year and find ways to compete.”
Amanda Krauss, the chief executive of U.S.A. Rowing, said the failure to produce any medals would spur a hard look at what could be done differently moving forward.
“That is the million dollar question and my inbox is filled with a lot of people telling me they know exactly what happened,” said Krauss, who took over the organization in November.
If there is a silver lining it may be that the next Summer Games are in just three years. All those teenage swimmers and young 20-something runners will not have to wait long for their next shot.
“I showed up but it just wasn’t good enough,” said Michael Cherry, 26, a track athlete who came in fourth in the 400 meters. “We’re a young team. We just got to grow.”