Can an Olympic performance tell us something about what is really going on inside a country? Could the London Games have provided us with a perfect chance to see this, free from noise, hype, and the distortions of statistics? Can we even be so bold as to use it to make a few predictions?
Let us look at a few of the clearest trends.
Since 1996, China has more than doubled its gold haul, from 16 to 38. In the past three Olympiads it has been neck and neck with the United States, outperforming it in Beijing in 2008.
America, far from having collapsed, appears if anything to have grown stronger. In 1988 and 1992 it scored 36 and 37 golds. This year, 46.