I still have the "meeting of continents" Tote Bag, the flyer for a "Turkish Blues Night" hosted by Istanbul, the key rings from many cities showing bridges and interlocking circles. I can remember Desmond Tutu bringing his irrepressible charm and authority to the cause of Cape Town, while flocks of bright young things tried to seduce us toward Osaka, Japan, or Paris or the "next great international city," Atlanta. One result of covering six Olympiads for this magazine was that I came to see that the real competition on display at any Olympic Games is not on the track or in the pool but offscreen, among the many ferociously determined lobbyists holding $1 million lunches to try to make their city the host for some Games in the future.
It's like the global, multibillion-dollar version of trying to get into a prestigious university or a coveted sorority or on a segment of Who'll Marry a Planetary Billionaire? And once you're admitted, you risk everything you have (Montreal finished paying for hosting the 1976 Summer Games only in 2006) in the hope of securing a windfall that will put you on the economic and geopolitical map forever. You bring in TV crews from almost 200 countries, 100,000 security guards, doping-control officers and almost three times as many volunteers as there are citizens of Monaco ... all this to show the world that you are a global player.
Yet the one slogan you never hear at the Olympics is that with dreams come responsibilities. Offering an Olympic blessing to Adolf Hitler's Berlin in 1936 is a curse the International Olympic Committee has yet to shake off. And in the global neighborhood, any city's treatment of its local problems is suddenly a matter of everyone's concern. So evicting roughly 3 million of the capital's residents, as Beijing has done, while spending perhaps $200 billion on reconstructing the city (more than 300 times as much as it spent on rural health care for the entire nation in 2006) raises terrible questions about what costs are legitimate in the pursuit of social and sporting acknowledgment. Beijing even invited Albert Speer, the son of Hitler's architect, to help design a major axis.
The hope in every Olympiad is that the host city will learn that if it is eager to appear on the global screen, it must meet the minimal standards devised by the international community. "Olympism," as Boutros Boutros-Ghali said when he was head of the U.N., is a "school for democracy." That's one reason the Dalai Lama--head of the Tibetans, who are being oppressed (like Uighurs and Mongolians and millions of Han Chinese freethinkers) by the government in Beijing--consistently says that the world needs China and that this Olympics should go on, ushering the planet's largest nation into a real sense of global brotherhood and peace. In Japan, where I live, and in Seoul, whose Summer Games I covered, long-ago Olympiads are still cherished as the historic moments when their countries had to become accountable to their new status within the executive club of nations.
So Beijing and its high-spending sponsors and TV crews will be eager to give us what we want in the weeks to come: feats of athletic heroism that lift the heart and acts of extraordinary sportsmanship that reduce us to tears; young people who call us to the better possibilities of our nature and hundreds of thousands of Chinese working overtime to show off, with justified pride, the stunning achievements of their resurgent nation, in building itself up again from nothing in barely more than a generation.
But those will be just 16 days in the history of a country that thinks in terms of dynasties. What happens afterward is much more important for the 1.3 billion citizens of the People's Republic. China will have to show that it can treat members of its 55 minority groups as fairly and respectfully as it does Han Chinese. It will have to make clear that individual human rights are as important to it as the demands of the collective state. And it will have to prove to a watching world that it is thinking not only of impressive surfaces and statistics but also of the intangibles--freedom and happiness and justice--that give those glossy enticements meaning.
Few fraternities ever allow an unassimilable sociopath to barge in on their special privileges. And no prestigious university is ennobled if it rewards brute determination and financial resources alone. What mostly has to be put to the test, and to global scrutiny, in the coming years is China's readiness to play by the rules of the larger globe--and our readiness to enforce those rules, even on our largest, most intractable member.