LONDON — With a surge of medals in track and field, the United States has sprinted ahead of China and is poised to finish atop the medals table at the London Olympics — maybe with the most golds ever collected by the Americans on foreign soil.
Heading into the final weekend of competition, the U.S. leads both the gold and overall medals races after trailing the Chinese most of the games.
The Americans pulled further ahead Friday. At the end of the day’s events, the U.S. led China 94 to 81 in total medals and 41 to 37 in golds.
Bill Mallon, a veteran American medals prognosticator, believes the U.S. will win the overall race by 12 to 15 medals and the gold count by three to five.
Four more golds would equal the highest U.S. total on foreign territory in Olympic history — 45 at both the 1968 Mexico City Games and the 1924 Paris Games.
The gold haul in London is already the best for the United States since it won 44 in 1996 in Atlanta. Its highest gold count was 83 at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, which were boycotted by the Soviet Union.
The late U.S. charge in London has been spurred by the track and field team, with 26 medals, including eight golds, through Friday.
The Americans picked up four medals Thursday night with 1-2 finishes by Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee in the decathlon and by Christian Taylor and Will Claye in the triple jump. They grabbed two more Friday night — gold in the women’s 4×100-meter relay and silver in the men’s 4×400 relay.
Away from the track, wrestler Jordan Burroughs won gold in the men’s 74-kilogram freestyle.
The success could validate the projection of 30 medals by USA Track & Field, the national governing body for the sport, which had been widely maligned as too ambitious.
With two more relays and a few other chances coming up, the United States could exceed 30 medals — even after being shut out in the men’s 200 and 400 meters, two events where the Americans usually excel.
“A lot of people thought 30 medals was crazy,” said Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s former chief of sports performance, who served on USA Track & Field’s “Project 30” panel.
He added: “It was the big question mark coming in. It turns out we are going to be right there. If there is a surprise, it’s just how well the U.S. has done in track and field.”
Though closely tracked by Olympic teams, fans and the media, the medals race is an unofficial competition. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t even recognize the medal count.
The U.S. Olympic Committee has also been reluctant to talk up the medals chase — until the end of the games, anyway. It stresses that its job is to enable as many Americans as possible to stand on the podium and represent the country.
“We are fortunate to have had success in both team and individual sports,” spokesman Patrick Sandusky said. “The Olympic Games is a competition between athletes, not nations. With that said, we are very proud of our American athletes in London.”
China beat the U.S. in gold medals, 51 to 36, on home soil at the 2008 Beijing Games, while the Americans prevailed 110 to 100 overall.
Many thought China would sweep both lists in London. And the Chinese started strong, racking up medals in their traditional sports of badminton, table tennis and diving. But medal chances are drying up in the final days, and China can’t compete with the U.S. in track and field.
“China’s big challenge is in swimming and track and field,” Roush said. “There are so many medals at stake.”
This is still China’s best gold medal showing outside Beijing, better than the 32 it collected at the 2004 Athens Games. But there is a clear sense of disappointment back home.
The Communist Party’s official Guangming Daily newspaper complained of unfair judging. Several papers cited the result in the men’s gymnastics rings event, in which Chen Yibing settled for silver behind Brazil’s Arthur Zanetti.
“We need to shout out loud: London Olympics, under the Olympic rings, please view all participants equally,” the paper said.
In interviews with Chinese newspapers, the country’s deputy sports minister, Cai Zhenhua, has also accused judges of discriminating against Chinese athletes.
“We need to solve the problem now or risk more judges adopting a biased view,” Cai said.
Britain, meanwhile, is assured of finishing third in gold medals, benefiting from a home-country boost that has produced its best medal performance in more than a century — 25 golds and 57 overall.
Not since the 1908 London Olympics has Britain racked up medals at this pace. Back then, only 22 nations showed up, compared with 204 today.
Britain, heavily promoting its athletes as Team GB, has excelled particularly in rowing and track cycling, thanks in large part to generous funding from the national lottery and the government-backed U.K. Sport body. U.K. Sport allocated $470 million for sports federations and athletes ahead of the London Games.
“GB cycling is a model of what can be done, and the rowing is phenomenal,” Roush said. “It’s been a combination of home-field advantage and U.K. Sport support.”
Britain’s rise has come at the expense of once-powerful Russia, which will finish out of the top three in golds for the first time since before the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics.
In 1912, the Russian team had no golds and five total. The Soviet Union began competing at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Since then, the Soviet or Russian team has finished in the top three in golds every time — until now.
The Russians had only 15 golds through Friday, compared with 23 in Beijing. They have won plenty of silver and bronze and are third in the overall count with 62, but that’s not good enough for a country that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“The Russians are rebuilding,” Roush said. “The old Soviet system produced such strong talent and coaches, but the coaches and athletes are starting to retire.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been South Korea. The country of 50 million people — roughly the population of California, Washington and Oregon put together — has charged into fourth place with 13 golds, asserting itself as an Asian power.
The South Koreans have invested heavily in Olympic sports, coaches and training and will do even more as they prepare to host the 2018 Winter Games in the city of Pyeongchang.
Japan has performed strongly, with 35 medals, but has failed to turn them into gold, picking up only five.
Australia and Germany have been among the biggest disappointments. The Australians had hoped to finish in the top five in both golds and total medals, but are lagging that pace with only seven and 31. Germany, which had a target of 28 golds and 86 medals, has only 10 golds and 42 total.