LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — The U.S. track team came up just short.
And boy, are they ecstatic about it.
Charged with the daunting goal of winning 30 medals at the London Games, the largest team in the U.S. Olympic contingent came through with 29. That's six more than it won four years ago in Beijing and the most since the 1992 Barcelona Games, when track and field hit the 30 mark.
"I think everyone thought their goal of 30 was out of reach," Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, told The Associated Press on Sunday. "Turns out, it was within reach. My take on it is that we have some of the best athletes in the world. They rose to the top."
Led by Allyson Felix's three gold medals, including the world record-setting 4x100 relay, the U.S. team also won nine titles, two more than in Beijing. The disappointing performance in China spawned an unflattering report called "Project 30" — a look at the track team's flawed system that concluded with a goal of winning 30 medals this year.
Too bad they didn't call it Project 29.
The team came into the final day of the Olympics with 29 medals and a contender in the marathon in Meb Keflezighi. He finished fourth — 1 minute, 29 seconds away from the 30th medal.
That hardly dampened the moment.
"It's good to see that they've turned the tide," said Steve Roush, the former chief of sport performance at the U.S. Olympic Committee, who helped shape "Project 30."
"I think for the last couple of Olympics, we felt the potential was there. It just wasn't happening at gametime. I really think you're seeing them cashing in on the potential."
Nothing symbolized that better than successes in the most "team" of team events on the track — the relays, where Americans dropped batons in both 4x100s in 2008, essentially summing up their struggles in Beijing.
This time, they held on tightly. Felix and Carmelita Jeter headlined the world-record win in 40.82 seconds in the women's race, shattering a 27-year-old mark. Justin Gatlin helped the men break their 20-year-old national record in prelims, then Tyson Gay joined him to help the U.S. top that in the final. The United States finished in 37.04 seconds to win the "B'' flight — .20 seconds behind Usain Bolt and the Jamaicans, who set the world record.
"Talking about the botched handoff is history now," said Tianna Madison, who ran the first leg on the women's record team.
The United States won 11 more medals at the track than second-place finisher Russia and 17 more than Jamaica. But unlike those countries, the U.S. brings contenders in almost every event, so winning the medal count is a virtual given.
As important as the numbers are the events where the medals came.
In a year in which the U.S. won only a single medal in the men's 100, 200 and 400 — events it used to dominate — it still came close to its goal, thanks in large part to the field events that don't get much of the limelight.
Brigetta Barrett won silver in the women's high jump for the first U.S. medal in that event since 1988.
Will Claye won bronze in the long jump and silver in the triple jump to become the first man — from any country — to medal in both jumps since Naoto Tajima of Japan in 1936.
Jenn Suhr served up one of the Olympics' most emotional scenes, sobbing into her husband's chest after winning an upset gold over Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva in the pole vault.
There were also a pair of medals in decathlon from Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee, and silvers from Galen Rupp in the 10,000 and Leo Manzano in the 1,500 — the first time the U.S. has won anything at those distances since the 1960s.
"They said they were going to put more focus on this, and we had better results," Blackmun said.
While the U.S. still must figure out a way to break through against the Jamaicans, who won eight of the 12 medals in the individual sprints, there's plenty to build on from these Olympics. More medals keeps the money coming from the USOC and could even build momentum for track in the States, where its popularity has waned in the aftermath of a raft of doping cases, stripped medals and bad characters.
"I would love for it to be on the forefront in America," Felix said. "But where we're at right now, we're not there."
They're getting closer, though. And even Doug Logan, the one-time CEO who lost his job about a year after putting "Project 30" on the table, found himself cheering this result.
"At the end of the day, the credit goes to the talent and heart of the athletes and the ability of the coaches," he said. "They came through."