By Mary Milliken
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – As Italian rifle shooter Niccolo Campriani reveled in his second gold medal in the Olympic Games on Sunday, he paused to express some sadness.
For him, the “greatest shooter of the century,” Matt Emmons, had not made it to the eight-man final of the 50 meter rifle three positions event, even though the American was considered a top contender for gold.
It was the final blow in a disastrous showing for the U.S. shooting team in 15 Olympic events. The Americans go home with one gold and two bronze, a result that the 35-year-old Emmons called “the worst we’ve done in a while.”
“Yeah, it’s been rough,” Emmons said after finishing 19th in qualifying. “I don’t really have an explanation for it. I really felt we brought a pretty darn good team here.”
The Italians, meanwhile, were preparing the party for their stellar showing at the Olympic Shooting Centre. With Campriani’s second gold, Italy topped the shooting medal table for Rio 2016 with four golds and three silvers.
Germany also impressed, winning three gold medals in three days. China won seven medals, but only one gold, a disappointment for them too. Vietnam picked up two medals, including its first gold in any sport.
Two Kuwaiti men competing under the Olympic flag, due to the International Olympic Committee’s ban on Kuwait, won a gold and a bronze and a young Greek woman at war with her federation won gold and bronze medals.
For Olegario Vazquez Rana, president of the International Shooting Sport Federation, the finals were gripping and unpredictable and made for great television.
“But the Americans were weak this year,” Vazquez Rana said, adding “they did not have the results they should have.”
He said internal strife in the U.S. federation could explain the poor performance.
“When there are internal problems in a federation, that sport usually doesn’t do well in international competition,” said Vazquez Rana, a Mexican businessman. “And the U.S. federation has had its problems.”
USA Shooting acknowledges that it has had internal struggles over the last four years and it is working to overcome them.
“But I don’t think you can point to that as the factor in terms of the idea that anything was taken away from athletes trying to gear up for a Games,” said Kevin Neuendorf, director of public relations at USA Shooting.
He rejects labeling the American performance as poor and prefers to view the U.S. medal count in Rio as “a testament more to the overall strength of the world” in shooting.
ITALIANS ‘DEAL WITH EMOTIONS’
The United States did come charging out of the gate, when a little-known 19-year-old Ginny Thrasher grabbed the first gold, which was also the first gold medal of all of the Olympic Games.
But then, in nine days full of upsets, surprises and new names, stalwarts like two-time gold medalist and defending skeet champion Vincent Hancock failed to even make the finals.
It was a consolation that Kim Rhode won bronze in women’s skeet, allowing her to join five other athletes who have won six medals in six Games. The 37-year-old, three-time gold medalist is also the only sportswoman in Olympic history to win six medals in six consecutive Games.
But it was two Italian women who made it to the finals of skeet, giving the country its first one-two finish ever in Olympic shooting.
Campriani believes that Italians have something special in their Mediterranean character that helps them deal with the extraordinary pressure of sport shooting.
“Look, this sport is not about not feeling emotions, it is about dealing with emotions,” the 28-year-old Italian said.
“We are Mediterranean, we have a lot of emotions, we deal with this since we are two years old and I think that’s our strength.”
(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)