That is a little bit of an upset. A lot of people who pay close attention to this stuff thought China would continue its rise as a power - in sports and in everything else - with a first-place finish. And that's how it looked for the first 10 days of the Games. But the Americans surged ahead with a big week in team sports and track and field.
For decades, Team USA's deepest rivalry was with the Soviet Union. Now it's China. There is a pretty clear and obvious parallel between what's going on in politics and economics and world events and what's happening on the track, in the pool, and at the arenas.
There is precious little actual rivalry between American and Chinese athletes. It is as if the two superpowers are compiling their medals in two separate Olympics. The Venn diagram would show China racking up medals in badminton (8), diving (10), table tennis (6), and weightlifting (7). The United States amassed a bunch in track and field (29), swimming (31), and tennis (4).
There is an overlap with direct competition in gymnastics and shooting and, to a lesser degree, swimming. China won more medals (10) in the pool than in any other discipline, but the United States won three times as many.
Follow the bouncing shot put, though, and you see what's at work here. Simply put, the United States is being rewarded at the Olympics for being ahead of many nations on the fundamental issue of gender equity. That doesn't mean we're there, but in sports, at least, women earn the same gold medals as men.
They're just earning more of them. Female athletes won 29 of those 46 gold medals. The women's soccer team won a gold medal; its male equivalent failed to qualify for the Games. Women won gold medals in judo and water polo and boxing. Men were shut out in all those sports.
Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old swimmer who won four gold medals here, would say that's "awesome," and it is. But this didn't happen by accident. Title IX, the law that mandated equal opportunity in schools, was passed 40 years ago. It started the ripple that became the wave that is cresting now.
"We believe strongly that Title IX had a lot to do with it," Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee said. "If you look at the U.S. medal performance over the last 10 to 20 years, a lot of the success that we've had in comparison to other nations is from our women. Title IX gave us a head start. I think the rest of the world is clearly doing the same thing, so I'm glad we got ahead of the curve."
The obvious laggers on that curve are nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are being shamed into sending female athletes at all. But so much depends on allocation of money for training and coaching, and many countries still don't treat women equally there.
The Japanese women's soccer team, silver medalists here and reigning World Cup champs, flew to London in economy class. The men's team flew business class.
Money affects much more than gender equity, though. With its corporate sponsors, the USOC is able to provide plenty of resources even in tough economic conditions. The rest of the world isn't always able to do the same.
Fatima Galvez, a Spanish trap shooter, made the point eloquently. The economy in Spain "is very bad," she said. "But with budget cuts, the medals are also cut."
Blackmun was right when he said, "We can't control what other countries do," but the United States is affected. The Olympics are about inclusion and fairness. They require as level a playing field as can be managed.
Instead of boasting about the half-billion dollars it has in the bank, maybe the International Olympic Committee needs to start spreading more of that wealth around to create world-class training centers for Olympic hopefuls regardless of nationality.
It is gratifying for U.S. athletes to see their country atop the medal standings. It would mean that much more, though, if the competition was better.
Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, email@example.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan