By Frank Deford
March 26, 2008

About this time every year, a few months before the Summer Olympics begin, there is often a certain amount of anxiety. Usually, it relates to whether all the facilities will be constructed in time for the sappy opening ceremonies. And usually, everything comes together, and fellowship and brotherhood once again reign on earth.

It ain't gonna be that pat this time.

Oh, there's no problem with the construction in Beijing, but there is simply no assurance that the twin issues of pollution and human rights will be improved a whit by August 8. It isn't, either, that these problems have snuck up on the International Olympic Committee. Pollution and human rights were foremost in the conversation way back in 1993, when the IOC came within a hair's breath of awarding the 2000 Games to Beijing. Sydney got the nod then, but the two bugaboos were no less front and center in 2001, when, verily, the Olympic voters blessed Beijing with these Games.

Of course, in many respects the IOC and China are good bedfellows. They both like to see things get done -- never mind the niceties. They both enjoy nothing better than mass pomp and circumstance. And they both would rather keep unpleasantries under wraps.

Jacques Rogge, the Belgian who chairs the IOC, surely knows that although there might be a little grandstanding, no nation is liable to be so bold as to boycott the 2008 Games. China is simply too powerful economically for anybody to want to get on its bad side. And while a few athletes who suffer with pulmonary problems may decide not to compete, like the world record-holder in the marathon, the Olympics simply mean too much for most athletes to forego their chance.

Besides, once Beijing was awarded the Olympics, the IOC lost moral suasion. It could no more take back the Games than can the United Nations stop China from providing subsidies to the Sudanese government, which helps to enable the carnage in Darfur. The actress Mia Farrow might have stung the Chinese by calling these Games the "Genocide Olympics," but life (and death) proceed apace in Darfur ... and Tibet ... And dissidents and journalists remain behind bars in China, while, on a typical day in Beijing pollution levels may be as much as five times more than what the World Health Organization calls safe. I know. Been there. Gasped that.

Rogge, doing his best King Canute imitation, assures us that the pollution will miraculously roll back because the Chinese "are not going to let down the world." More cynically, Rogge is surely counting on the reality that once the fun and Games begin, politics are always pretty much forgotten. The inability to breathe, however, is something that does tend to remain in the consciousness, and if visitors are gagging, they may not swallow the political abuses either.

The Chinese so wanted the Olympics as a way to show off their new power and prosperity. Wouldn't it be ironic if, instead, the negative got accented, and even a little bit of the world's venom was directed away from the United States and toward China? Well, at least for a couple of weeks ...

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