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Maybe the Aussies didn’t awe, but look out for India

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The age-old rivalry between Australia and Britain provided one of the more entertaining subplots at the 2012 London Olympics.

Before the competition began, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham summed up the animosity between the nations, using slang to describe the British athletes.

“I think we always want to stick it to the Poms,” he said.

But words mean little at the Games; the medal count has the final say.

By that tally, the home team won convincingly -- 65-35 -- and Australia ended up as one of several countries that walked away at least slightly disappointed.

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Kenya came up short on the track and Cuba continued a long, downward slide. The Germans, despite a top-10 finish overall, were shut out in swimming.

On the flip side, there was reason to suspect that a long-overlooked nation might be on the rise.

“India,” said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “Watch out for India.”

Counting medals is the true final event of the Olympic Games. While the U.S. and China battled for the top spot, and Britain enjoyed the traditional home-team surge, other teams fought to climb the standings. Fans and the media were bound to make comparisons.

Wallechinsky cautions against rash judgments. Nations can stumble or soar, then reverse course four years later.

But there was real cause for concern around the Australian contingent in the first week of competition, when the team was in 24th place in the medals count with only one gold. This was a nation that had won 58 medals when it hosted the 2000 Summer Games.

Kevan Gosper, an International Olympic Committee member and former athlete from Australia, told various media outlets that his country had not spent enough to develop young talent.

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“The fact is, you do need more money in international sports and preparing if you’re going to compete with the world,” he told Australia’s ABC radio.

Not only had the Australians fallen behind the British, they trailed neighboring New Zealand.

“We don’t want to suffer jokes for the next three years and 50 weeks until Rio,” said Kitty Chiller, the team’s deputy chef de mission. “So hopefully we can overcome them.”

In fact, Australia staged a comeback in the second week, climbing to No. 10 in the gold-medal count with seven and seventh in overall medals. Better than New Zealand, but far worse than Britain. And not quite up to par for a country that had finished in the 40s and 50s at recent Games.

“When it happens once, it can be just a glitch,” said Wallechinsky, who wrote “The Complete Book of the Olympics.” “When it happens two times in a row, it’s a problem.”

Which means that Cuban officials should be worried.

Their team finished the London Games with 14 medals. The total represented a fourth consecutive decrease since the 2000 Summer Olympics, when the Cubans had 29.

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Baseball -- one of their strongest sports -- is no longer a part of the Olympic program. In track and field and boxing, events in which they used to excel, they won only two golds.

As Wallechinsky pointed out, “Their boxing has been decimated by defections.”

The Kenyans won 11 medals on the track but came up short of their numbers from four years ago and stumbled badly in the marquee 1,500-meter race, where defending champion Asbel Kiprop finished last.

India was similarly dissatisfied with its showing in field hockey, the national sport. Through the 1970s, Indian teams regularly contended for -- and usually won -- medals.

Though field hockey has fallen off since then, the country managed six medals in London and competed well in a number of events.

Krishna Poonia and Soniya Chanu Ngangbam made the finals in women’s discus and women’s weightlifting, respectively. Devendro Singh Laishram and Vijender reached the quarterfinals in men’s boxing.

“There is a lot of interest back home,” said Deepika Kumari, a highly ranked archer who lost in the round of 16 in individual competition and led the women’s team to the quarterfinals.

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Despite the country’s relatively low medal total, Wallechinsky sees the possibility of better days ahead.

“Obviously, they have the population,” he said. “Now they have an economy.”

If things get much better, they might have to start worrying about the medal count.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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