For the first time in 12 years, the United States will not be on top of the Summer Games medals table. With one week left in the Beijing Olympics, China is poised to replace the U.S. as the country with the most gold medals. (Counting gold, by the way, is a worldwide standard.)
While China's emergence as a global sports power should be a surprise to no one, it's clear that the Chinese benefitted from hosting this year's Games. Through Sunday, China has hauled in more golds (35) than it did in the entire Olympics in Athens (32). Playing at glittering new venues and cheered on by a helpful home crowd, Chinese athletes are projected to win as many as 45 gold medals and 85 overall.
But China hardly would be the first Summer Olympic host to take advantage of home cookin'. Since 1988, every host nation has seen an increase in gold medal count, and all but one - the United States, ironically - has reeled in more medals as host than in the previous Games. (See Chart)
We use the 1988 Seoul Games as demarcation for this study for two reasons. The first is fairly obvious: The previous two Olympics - Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 - were boycotted by large blocs of influential countries and therefore the medal counts were grossly skewed.
The second reason is that the 1984 Games marked the Olympics' departure from only the purely traditional and classic sports to the inclusion of the truly unconventional and downright bizarre ones. And the number of available medals naturally skyrocketed. In L.A., synchronized swimming gained a place as a medal sport. Since then, beach volleyball, trampoline, rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized diving all found their way up the podium.
From the first postwar Games (London 1948) to L.A., the number of sports held steady between 19 and 22. After L.A., it has mushroomed to 31 until the IOC finally put a cap after the 2004 Games in Athens. Total available medals has gone from 411 in London to 688 in L.A. (plus-277 in 36 years) to 922 in Beijing. (plus-234 in 16 years).
The proliferation of (marginal) sports in the Olympics had a direct impact in helping the home team. It allowed the host nations to target their resources in more sports to mine medals. China instituted Project 119 in 2001, shortly after winning the bid to host the Games, expressly focusing on areas where the United States might be weaker - and that strategy appears to be paying off.
Of the five post-L.A. hosts prior to Beijing, Spain enjoyed the biggest sporting renaissance in a four-year period. The Spaniards hauled in 13 golds and 22 overall in Barcelona, good for sixth place, after winning just one gold and four total in Seoul 1988. Australia also catapulted from a second-tier sports power to a global juggernaut, adding seven golds and 17 total medals as host in Sydney 2000.
On average, the host nations improved their presence in the standings by 5.3 places with an additional 6.8 gold medals and 9 overall. By percentage, that's a whopping 60 percent improvement in golds and 24 percent overall.
Economic assistance is the primary reason for medal improvement. The host nation, already committing millions (later, billions) into building Olympic infrastructure, spent some of that investment on its athletes. Sometimes lavishly. Improved facilities often led to better training and coaching and therefore better performance on the field.
Another factor is that home teams always benefitted from questionable officiating in events where judges decided the outcomes. The most infamous example would be Roy Jones' "loss" in the 1988 Games to South Korean Park Si-Hun in the light middleweight gold medal bout. Of course there are others, including this year's women's gymnastics controversy, in which China's blatant use of underage performers were generously overlooked - an unlikely event had the Games been held outside of China.
Finally, the development of sporting culture in host countries proved to be vital - and also lasting - in helping these nations to win medals now and later. The initial investment in Olympic athletes often resulted in sprouting interest in sports in the general population. It's revealing that, except Greece, each of the recent host nations has maintained its global sports standings even after the Games have long departed its turf.
Including China, four of the six leading nations in Beijing are recent hosts (1. China, 2. USA, 5. Australia, 6. South Korea). Spain is ranked 13th, but arguably it's having a better sporting year than anyone else on the planet, with victories in the soccer European Championship and Tour de France, and Rafael Nadal's double triumph at the French Open and Wimbledon and ascendency to world. No. 1.
It's a certainty, with this backdrop, that China will remain a sporting power long after Beijing. Great Britain, currently ranking No. 3 and having its best Olympics since 1920, is next in line as the host of the 2012 Games in London. The top of the medals table is getting crowded with lots of newly minted Olympic powers, all emerging after serving as the host in the last 20 years.
Threatened by all these new competitors, the United States has but one thing to do to reclaim the five-ring global supremacy:
Get the 2016 Games to Chicago.