BEIJING — With just two days left before the end of the Olympic Games, some U.S. sports officials were fretting Friday about a likely U.S. second-place finish in the gold-medal count, far behind China, and wondering what went wrong this month.
U.S. athletes have suffered bitter disappointments in events such as track and field competitions and boxing, while top-ranked U.S. teams in softball, women's water polo and other sports have lost to upstart underdogs in gold medal matches.
Making matters worse, the beleaguered Americans have been powerless to stop Chinese athletes, who have pulled far ahead in the gold-medal tally, even in the games' second week when U.S. athletes were supposed to tighten the gap.
By the end of Friday, the U.S. team had won 31 gold medals behind the 47 earned by the Chinese delegation. U.S. athletes, however, were still leading in total medals at 102 to the 89 medals won by the Chinese.
Another 44 gold medals will be awarded in the last two days of the Olympics this weekend, including eight in track-and-field events where U.S. athletes have traditionally been strong. This year, however, U.S. track and fielders have struggled, and the chances of a come-from-behind win in total gold medals are slim.
A second-place U.S. gold-medal finish in Beijing would mark a first for the Americans since the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. The United States has won the gold-medal race in 16 of the 26 modern Olympic Games.
"There are more countries winning those medals," said Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance. "And there are only so many to win. If they're winning more, someone's winning less. And here in Beijing, we didn't step it up like they did."
Despite the disappointments, U.S. officials tried to paint a positive picture Friday, saying their athletes would likely top the U.S. performance in the 2004 Athens games when the Americans won a total of 102 medals. The Americans, in fact, crossed that mark around 10 p.m. Beijing time Friday.
The U.S. team will also likely win the total medal count this year, bittersweet consolation for a competition largely judged by its gold-medal tally.
The committee's chief executive officer, Jim Scherr, said U.S. athletes were doing well in team sports, although such competitions net only two medals - one for men and another for women - after days of play.
An historic performance by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals this month, also grabbed headlines.
The problem, officials said, was U.S. athletes faced tougher competition in sports they usually dominated. Jamaican sprinters such as Usain Bolt, for example, dashed away the hopes of U.S. runners, while the Japanese softball team shocked the Americans by downing them in Thursday night's final game.
The losses continued when the Cuban baseball team beat the Americans in a Friday semifinals match.
"These games are significantly more competitive than in Athens," Scherr said. "We know some nations devoted significantly more resources in these games."
The Chinese government, in fact, spent at least $1 billion on athlete development in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, said U.S.-based Chinese athletics expert Xu Guoqui. By comparison, the U.S. Olympic Committee's annual budget is $150 million, with much of it coming from non-governmental sources.
"Chinese progress in sports has mirrored its economic growth," Xu said. "They have a lot more money to spend on sports now."
The Chinese reaped the rewards of that spending this year, especially in their targeting of medal-rich sports where their athletes haven't traditionally excelled. With the help of foreign coaches, the program led to Chinese gold medals in sports such as fencing and sailing.
"We understand the Chinese team has been fantastic," said U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth. "In the future and in these games, they're clearly full of resources and effort in every single sport, but we'll have to redouble our efforts."
When U.S. Olympics officials return to their Colorado headquarters, they'll look at how to better spend their resources in the run-up to the 2012 London games, how to better use their athlete training centers and perhaps how to draw more government funding, Roush said. The U.S. track and field program will undergo a "comprehensive review" after the games, the program's chief executive officer, Doug Logan, announced on his blog.
Ueberroth said more attention would be paid to sports such as track cycling where U.S. athletes "don't show up at all."
Roush said more Americans need to get behind their athletes.
"You have a question of unlimited need and limited resources," Roush said. "We need our country to support our team."
For Corey Cogdell, U.S. bronze medal winner in trap shooting, this year's second-place gold medal finish will motivate the United States to claw back on top of the Olympic heap.
"We need to continue to work harder and strive for perfection," Cogdell said. "We need to be able to be on top of the world."