VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The United States got the medals. Canada got the gold.
In a remarkable show of depth and talent by the North American neighbors, the United States won the overall medals race at the Vancouver Olympics with 37 — the most ever by any country at the Winter Games.
Canada, thanks to a thrilling overtime win Sunday over the U.S. in the men’s hockey final, captured the most gold medals — 14, breaking the record for any Winter Olympics.
Indeed, Canada won more gold at these games than it had at any previous Olympics, winter or summer. The host country finished third in total medals with 26, its best ever Winter Games.
Even though Canada fell short of the overall lead — the brash pre-games goal of its $117 million Own the Podium program — the result was cause for national jubilation.
“Canada’s athletes came to these games not with a swagger but with a confidence they could do what they set out to do,” said Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “What they have done over the course of these past two weeks — they’ve inspired an entire nation to believe in themselves.”
The U.S. total of 37 medals exceeded all expectations — and marked only the second time in the 21 Winter Olympics that Americans had won the medals count, the other coming at Lake Placid in 1932.
“It’s hard to imagine we could have done much better,” said Scott Blackmun, the new CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “Our athletes have done a phenomenal job.”
Germany, which won in Turin four years with 29 total medals and 11 golds, finished second this time, winning 30 medals, 10 of them gold. Norway — the all-time Winter Games medals leader — was fourth with 23, including a gold won by Petter Northug on Sunday in the 50-kilometer cross-country ski race.
Of the also-rans, perhaps the best showing was by South Korea, which won 14 medals on the strength of its skaters — three more than its previous Winter Games high.
If there was a prominent loser, it was Russia, which will host the next Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. The Russians had only three golds among its 15 medals, won no golds in their usual stronghold of figure skating, and finished sixth in the standings — the only time they have been out of the top five since the Soviet Union first competed in the Winter Games in 1956.
Unquestionably, the big story of the medals race was the U.S.-Canada surge, which Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Rudge hailed as “tremendous.”
“The International Olympic Committee world is very Eurocentric,” he said, recalling a meeting he attended last year where European sports officials were expressing concern about inroads being made by other regions’ sports programs.
“I thought, ‘We and our friends in the U.S.A. may show you a few things in Vancouver — and lo and behold it worked out that way,” Rudge said.
Indeed, several medal-winning U.S. athletes said they felt relaxed competing in Canada and well-supported by fans from both countries.
“It felt like a home game for us,” said speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno. “I think that’s probably why we’re doing so well.”
“In a little way it was sort of like a North American Olympics,” said Bill Demong, who won a gold medal in Nordic combined. “There were just so many enthusiastic fans from the States, and also I think Canadians and Americans rooting for each other’s teams quite a bit since we are neighbors.”
Demong — an Olympian since Nagano in 1998 — marveled at the progress the U.S. team had made in performance and the whole infrastructure that supports the athletes.
“At Nagano we felt like one of the outsiders,” he said. “Now we’re here to win.”
Ohno said success will breed a new set of challenges.
“Anytime you have a target on your back, or anytime you are looked at as the leader of the group, as I feel the U.S. clearly is, it makes it very difficult,” he said. “But our athletes — the young and the older veterans — are always up for the challenge.”
Canadian officials were delighted not only by their gold-medal haul, but by their athletes’ numerous fourth and fifth place finishes. According to their figures, Canada and the U.S. led all nations at these games in top five finishes with 49 each.
“We’re beginning to build a base,” said Roger Jackson, the chairman of Own the Podium. “As we go forward — both in United States and Canada — we will have a far more competitive challenge with each other.”
“We were in the same boat 20 years ago — no resources, facilities. Now we have all that.”
Chambers, the Canadian Olympic Committee president, noted with a smile that victory has a price — at least $1.5 million that will be paid out in bonuses to the Canadian medal winners.
“It’s a lot of money that we very much enjoy spending,” he said.
Twenty-six countries earned at least one medal in the Vancouver Games, tying the record set four years ago in Turin.
However, Australia was the only country from the Southern Hemisphere to win medals — with three in freestyle skiing. Thirteen nations from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean were among the 82 competing in these games, but the all-time shutout streak for those regions continued.