They are little golden baubles that signify only athletic prowess, in disciplines as irrelevant to raw political muscle as gymnastics and beach volleyball.
But gold medal tables throughout the modern Olympic era have offered a fascinating snapshot of global power – coupled, it must be said, with home advantage. And with resignation rather than any burning sense of failure, America is virtually conceding in advance that at the Beijing Games of August 2008, China will seal its international emergence by knocking the United States off its golden throne.
If you have any doubts that the past 100 years have been the American century, the Olympics should banish them. True, back when a quarter of the world was coloured pink in the atlas, Britain dominated proceedings at the Home Games in London in 1908, winning 56 golds, more than double the American haul of 23. But thereafter the US ruled, until the emergence of a rival superpower. Between 1956 and 1988, America and the Soviet Union (abetted on occasion by its steroid-fuelled surrogate East Germany) battled for gold medal supremacy, a duel interrupted only by the reciprocal boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Games in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively.
After the collapse of Communism in 1991, the US was back in the driving seat. But China was creeping up in the rear view mirror. In Los Angeles in 1984 – the Middle Kingdom's first Games after a quarter-century boycott during the Mao era – China won 15 gold medals, the fourth largest national haul.
By Sydney 2000, it had climbed to third, and at the last Olympics, in Athens four years ago, it came second, behind the US. This time the progression should reach its climax. If the old yardstick of global might plus home advantage is any guide, China should make it to number one. Such, too, is the best guess of US prognosticators. An analysis in yesterday's USA Today predicts that China will top the medal count over the next fortnight, with 51 golds compared with 43 for the US.
It will be the first time in 72 years that a country other than the US or the former Soviet Union heads the table – the last being Germany at the Hitler Games of 1936, (another example of how rising national power plus home advantage has been a reliable gauge of Olympic dominance). But there is no gnashing of teeth here, merely an acceptance that the US is looking at second place. "We're not used to being an underdog," Pete Ueberroth, who ran the Los Angeles Games and now chairs the US national Olympic Committee, told USA Today. "So we'll get used to that and do our best."
This may be a case of the politicians' game of downplaying expectations. But all the non-sporting, as well as the sporting, indicators are pointing south for the US. Its economy is in the biggest crisis of a generation, its global reputation has tumbled, its relative power is waning. It is tempting to see these Games as a hinge of history, the passage from the former American century to a new Chinese one. But there is little of the bitter antagonism that used to mark the US rivalry with the Soviets during the Olympics of the Cold War. For one thing, there is relatively little sporting overlap. The US still dominates in track and field and swimming, while much of China's medal haul will come in events which barely figure on the radar screen here.
More important, however, for all the complaints about its human rights record, China just isn't perceived to be that threatening.