If we can't beat them then we should chose a different way to play the game. There may be optimism that, with the right financial support, Britain's athletes can, at the London Olympics, build on their extraordinary success in Beijing. But there is little doubt that, were we to try, we would probably fail to match China's perfectly choreographed, visually stunning, ambitiously scaled and staggeringly punctual 2008 Games.
It therefore makes perfect sense for the Olympics minister Tessa Jowell to float the idea of doing things rather differently. We must not try to emulate Beijing, she suggests, but we need to come up with new ways of thinking – perhaps by holding the opening and closing ceremonies across the whole of London rather than just in the main Olympic Stadium.
This must be more than necessity being the mother of invention, however. We need to identify our strengths and play to them. If corporate collectivism is the hallmark of China, ancient and modern, London needs to look to the innovative individualism that has shaped our national character. Making the Games feel more democratic, involving ordinary citizens more, is the right intuition there. After the big studio Olympics we need something humbler but altogether cleverer.
What we do not want is the slightly shambling whimsy of the London contribution at the Beijing. The instinct was right but the end result a bit too amateurish. Much the same can be said for the Prime Minister's plan for sport for all. As well as increased funding for elite athletes we need to improve the base of the nation's sporting pyramid with better facilities all round. So, again, it was welcome this week to hear Ms Jowell's boss, the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, announce an extra £30m for 4,000 new projects aimed at making the whole nation more active – especially since the £100m of private-sector funding for the run-up to 2012 may fail to materialise because of the credit crunch.
Getting Britain's schoolkids to do five hours' sport a week instead of two is a laudable aim. It would be good for health, for education, for crime prevention and much more. And funding is a real issue. In Beijing, Britain excelled at cycling, swimming, sailing – sports that, significantly perhaps, don't need a school playing field. It is also striking that schools with money for better facilities produce better sportsmen: private schools educate just 7 per cent of Britons and yet their former pupils won 45 per cent of Britain's medals at the past three Olympics. But it requires more than increased funding. It requires imagination. The Government can take the hordes to water but cannot make them into Rebecca Adlingtons. It can call for the London Games to be more sassy, but will the committees charged with the task produce only collapsing buses and old rockers?