I'm like anybody else. I watch the Olympics because I want to see who wins. But the 2008 Summer Games are intriguing for reasons that go well beyond the 100-meter final, Michael Phelps' bid to become the greatest Olympian ever or the daily mine-is-bigger exercise of comparing medal counts.
These Beijing Games feature a contest between two massive, highly sensitive, self-important entities used to having their way, two powers that have grown increasingly accustomed to having mega-corporations and entire nations beg their indulgence.
I speak, of course, about China and the Olympics itself, and the battle over what these games mean. All Olympics leave behind a footprint, but we've been told so incessantly of Beijing 2008's cultural significance that its legacy has become as important -- and perhaps more -- than the event itself. And it's only after the flame is doused and the smoke clears that we'll even begin to see the lasting impact.
Going in, though, it's clear that the Olympics -- or what the converted like to call fervently, if vaguely, "The Olympic Movement" and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge terms "Olympism" -- has suffered a series of body blows it somehow never saw coming. Knowing China, this is puzzling. Knowing the IOC, it makes perfect sense.
Corruption and drug scandals aside, over the last 20 years, the Olympics has been able to claim for itself a role as one of the planet's few forces for positive change: The IOC's 28-year ban on South Africa helped undermine apartheid; the hunger for the 1988 Summer Games helped tip South Korea toward democracy; infrastructure upgrades for the games of 1992 and 2004 improved Barcelona and Athens in ways that will be felt for decades.
A remarkable winning streak, really, and one that made the IOC sure, as late as '06, that the '08 Beijing Olympics could pull off a similar transformative trick -- socially, perceptionally, perhaps even politically -- with China.
"I think it will do a lot," Rogge told me during the '06 Winter Games in Turin. "It's difficult to quantify. I think it's going to change a lot in China. It's going to show China as it is to the world. China isn't known, and we will bring 25,000 media people, 130 to 140 television companies, so they will report on sport, on China, on the society of China. At the same time, it will open up China. I'm sure it will have a positive effect. To which extent? Difficult to assess. Can I give a detailed description? No. But China will not be the same after the games. That's for sure."
Buttressing this conceit was China's implicit pledge during the bid process to improve its human rights record and open up the country to foreign journalists. Conciliatory statements by Chinese officials gave the IOC cover when it awarded the games in 2001, short-circuiting initial reservations by the skeptical; there was little choice but to wait-and-see.
Rogge insisted five years later that he had pressed Beijing officials on China's human-rights record, and was confident they were listening. He wasn't alone. The Olympics, said Soviet pole vaulting legend and current IOC member Sergei Bubka, will serve as a human rights example for China that "can change the city, open the door, open the country." The Beijing Games, said former U.S. volleyball star and current IOC member Bob Ctvrtlik, "will be, 100 years from now, looked at as an historical turning point."
But for the moment, it seems, exactly the opposite has occurred. The closer we got to the opening ceremonies, the more China's open hand began to resemble a clenched fist. One report after another from human-rights groups chronicled that, rather than improving the situation, the Olympics have been used by the regime as justification for crackdowns on dissenters and domestic journalists.
Chinese authorities have become more, not less, retrograde in dealing with any deviation from its increasingly public hardline -- witness their decision, two days before the opening ceremonies, to revoke the entry visa of Darfur activist Joey Cheek, the former U.S. speedskater who has vocally hammered China for its support of the Sudanese government .And as criticism multiplied over the last six months, Rogge and the rest of the IOC retreated into bland defenses about the Olympics not being an enforcement agency, or more often a silence that felt like an organizational state of shock.
To China-watchers, though, none of this came as a surprise. The country has a history reaching back farther than even the dreams of ancient Olympia, but for many these games stand as the most important interaction China has had with the outside world in centuries. The stakes couldn't be higher. So when, in the last year, worldwide criticism started to build, the regime reverted to type.
"I'm always hopeful that China will find ways to be more open and more tolerant, but I also know from many decades of experience that when they get nervous or tense and particularly when they feel they may lose face and be humiliated by some disorder, they have this almost uncontrollable tendency to control," says Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China relations at The Asia Society in New York.
"It's amazing. And it's not just Leninist-Communist, it's also Confucian. You have to remember this is a country that for thousands of years placed loyalty, obedience to authority, hierarchy -- respect for orders coming down from above -- on a higher plane than almost anything else. This is a deeply ingrained instinctual way of reacting."
Among the Chinese public, Western media and rights critics were popularly denounced as meddlers. The Olympics remained a point of the highest national pride, beyond politics, beyond Western notions of the way China should be.
"Nobody [there] wants China to be humiliated," Schell says. "They've just gone through a century-and-a-half of that: They've humiliated themselves, they've been humiliated, they've been occupied and kicked around, they've killed each other, tortured each other, tormented each other -- and now they want to put that aside and show that China has become great again."
It's unclear, of course, what will happen during the games: Whether any protests will gain a foothold, whether any foreign or Chinese athletes will attempt to make a political statement, whether a government's response will provoke an unexpected backlash.
Even less obvious is any answer to the questions that will bubble beneath every moment of these games: Will the Olympics change China in any way beyond the superficial? Or will China's handling of the games only legitimize the regime and thus undermine any future IOC claim as a change-agent for good?
That's why I can't wait for these Olympics to end. Because Aug. 8, 2008, isn't the important date here. It's Aug. 24, 2008 -- and beyond.