Like a marathoner at the finish line, China seems whipped. It struggled two decades to host the Olympics that open in three weeks. It has spent about $50 billion, pumped up its athletes, spiffed up Beijing, and fended off calls for a boycott. Now it may wonder if the effort will be worth it.
The Games themselves will, of course, be the world's main focus for two weeks after the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies. And thousands of athletes will fulfill once again the purpose of the modern Olympics, as stated by founder Pierre de Coubertin: "to bring together in a radiant union all the qualities which guide mankind to perfection."
But these Olympics also came with two political expectations, both of which are not even close to earning a medal.
One is human rights in China. The International Olympic Committee, in awarding the Games seven years ago, pointed to the Communist Party's record in suppressing dissent and said it expected that "openness, progress, and development in many areas will be such that the situation will be improved." The IOC also said athletes have "an absolute right" during the Games to speak out. The party itself did not publicly agree to improve its record, but the head of China's bidding team did say the Beijing Games would "benefit the further development of our human rights cause."
If anything, China's human rights record has worsened, as seen clearly during this spring's crackdown on Tibet's Buddhist monks. Last year, the number of arrests for "endangering state security" was at their highest since 2000.
Why would China do this? These Olympics may simply serve as a pretext for the party to keep an authoritarian hold over 1.3 billion Chinese, who are increasingly revolting against corrupt rule. Not only do the Olympics justify crackdowns, but Chinese leaders have shown again and again that they will use foreign protests to whip up nationalist pride.
Those actions undercut the second expectation of these Olympics: to celebrate China's economic progress and its emergence as a power.
China's leaders may have thought the Beijing Olympics would serve the same purpose as the 1964 Games did for Japan: a coming-out party. Instead, the many protests, such as the interruptions of the torch relay, and the strong possibility of protests in Beijing during the Games, are likely to lower the PR boost.
The 2008 Olympics could end up like the 1936 Berlin Games, in which Hitler tried to promote Nazi (and Aryan) superiority, only to have American blacks, such as Jesse Owens, win track events. But these Games may not be the PR disaster of the 1980 Moscow Games that were widely boycotted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were overturned within years after their Games. A better model for China would be the 1988 Seoul Games. During the run-up to those Olympics, the South Korean people used the coming event to rise up and force an end to a dictatorship. Now that was an example of "qualities which guide mankind to perfection."