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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crystal Ball Forecasts Dreary U.S. Prospects

ATLANTA -- Last winter, U.S. Swimming officials gazed into their crystal ball and saw something frightening. They examined the best performances in the world in each event over the past two years, then estimated the number of medals Americans would win at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.


The results were stunning, even embarrassing, for a sport that has been an unstoppable medal machine for decades in the United States: four gold medals for the men; none for the women.


What swimming officials did next was every bit as surprising. Rather than hide or downplay their projections, they gladly faxed their findings to any reporter who wanted to see them.


"That's what we're trying to do, lower expectations," U.S. Olympic Committee President LeRoy Walker said recently. "It's a very competitive world now. It's not the same as the 1984 Olympic Games."


The last time the Olympics came to America, 12 years ago in Los Angeles, the United States couldn't help but win medals. Over and over again, American athletes draped in red, white and blue and squinting into the Southern California sun stood atop the medal platform and reveled in victory.


The United States won 83 gold medals at those boycotted Olympics, more than any nation has won in one Olympics in the now-100-year history of the modern Games. And so dominant was the U.S. swimming team that it alone accounted for 21 gold medals.


In 12 years, is it possible U.S. Swimming will drop from 21 gold medals to four? That's just a projection, but it's most definitely a sign that what happened in 1984 will not happen again in Atlanta, not in swimming or most of the other sports the United States controlled in the Los Angeles Games.


If the 1984 Olympics are remembered as an all-American birthday party, as some called it then, the 1996 Olympics are likely to be an all-American reality check.


"I think we need to be honest with people," said USOC Executive Director Dick Schultz. "[The 1984 Olympics] wasn't really a full Olympics, because several of the strongest teams were not there, especially in sports like swimming and gymnastics. We won a bunch of medals because we weren't facing some of the best athletes in those Games.


"On paper, it's unrealistic for anyone to expect us to go out and win the way we did in the glory days," said Dennis Pursley, U.S. Swimming's national team director, referring to times such as the 1976 Games in Montreal, when U.S. men won the gold medal in 12 of 13 events.


Coaches, athletes and officials routinely call the 1996 U.S. Olympic team the "strongest" in the nation's history -- not in swimming, perhaps, but overall, including women's gymnastics, men's sprints in track and field and even new sports such as softball, women's soccer and beach volleyball.


By the time Aug. 4 rolls around and the Games are ending, it's likely the United States will have won more medals than any other nation, followed by Russia -- now one of 15 nations that used to form the Soviet Union.


The world has caught up to the United States for a variety of reasons. Some nations made major pushes in certain sports, the Australians rededicating themselves in swimming in the 1980s, for instance, and reaping the rewards in the '90s.


In the United States, meanwhile, professional sports such as basketball and football tend to attract top young athletes, luring them away from sports such as swimming and track and field. U.S. colleges and universities often give scholarships to foreign athletes who then compete against Americans in the Olympics.


"We will not see too many more of the [Matt] Biondis and [Mark] Spitzes and those kinds of performances in the Summer Games," Schultz said. "The competition is so high that an athlete who wins three or four gold medals is almost a thing of the past."


Heading into the Games, Tom Dolan of Arlington, Virginia, is the United States' brightest swimming hope. To prove Schultz's point, Dolan is not projected by U.S. Swimming to win two or three gold medals. Officials are hoping for just one, with chances for two more.


In the 400-meter individual medley, Dolan is the world-record holder. In the 200 IM, Finland's Jani Sievinen holds the world mark. Dolan has the best time in the world this year in both events (and in his third event as well, the 400 freestyle), which is significant -- to a point.


Sievinen has been lying low and only recently popped up on the world-best charts with a time more than one second slower than Dolan's best this year in the 200 IM. Sometimes, U.S. spectators get a distorted view of American prospects because of the amount of media coverage devoted to an athlete or a race.


At the recent U.S. track and field trials, Mary Slaney rated headlines in most newspapers and highlights on the late-night news when she qualified for another Olympic team at age 37. But Slaney's time in the 5,000 meters was nearly 40 seconds slower than the best time in the world this year.


She and the other two Americans will have to run faster -- or hope the Atlanta heat gets to their competitors -- to make the final of their event, much less win a medal.


Even in gymnastics, memories of Mary Lou Retton's dramatic gold medal in the boycotted 1984 Games are replaced by the realities of the fiercely competitive international scene.