The medal table will demonstrate the new world order – with China on top

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor