Seven years ago, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Games to China, the Olympics were supposed to bestow on Beijing a sheen of progress. Operating under the quintet of intertwined circles and the high-minded values that are trademarks of the Olympic Movement, it was thought, would compel Beijing's rulers to be more open, more democratic. But now the five rings are starting to choke China.
Instead of a sporting event that nudges the Chinese regime toward more fairness and transparency, the Games are serving only to highlight events such as the crackdown in Tibet. Meantime, Human Rights Watch is spotlighting the squalid conditions of the migrant workers building Olympic venues, and on Mar. 31, Dream for Darfur is scheduled to release a "report card" on the response of Olympic corporate sponsors to China's support of "genocide" in Sudan. To make matters worse, the IOC just announced that Beijing's miserable air quality might mean rescheduling endurance events.
But no, there won't be an official boycott. The EU says it won't back one. And President Bush's Treasury owes too much money to China for the U.S. to rain on the most important parade since The Long March. Besides, a series of boycotts from 1976-84 almost destroyed the Olympics and punished no one but hard-working athletes.
"Boycotts don't work," says Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur, a group pressuring China over its support of the Sudanese regime. "Boycotts are tired. They're old school. They're kind of fringy and lefty."
The political stage belongs to those who show up, not to those who stay away. Ask the angry Tibetan monks. So with a little more than four months to go until Opening Ceremonies, China's coming-out party has become a steady drip of organized protest.
China's leaders can whine that there is no connection between politics and sports, but only the naive take them seriously. The Olympics are a political event and have been forever thus. The Internet and YouTube—when they're not blocked by censors—will turn the runup to these Games into viral political theater. In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for department, the whole world will be watching China—and not just what Beijing wants it to watch.
The touching contradiction is that, deep down, the people seem to want the Olympics to serve as a channel for what they call "public diplomacy"—the projection of the values and opinions of China to the rest of us, not the formal, measured diplomacy of dark suits in ornate rooms. They're hoping for a transfer of good vibes.
"Beijing's citizens want to be perfect hosts," says Zhong Xin, an associate professor of journalism and communication at Beijing's Renmin University and a visiting research fellow at the University of Maryland. One fascinating finding from a survey of Beijing residents revealed that an overwhelming number saw the Olympics as an opportunity for "Chinese officials [to] show their capability in dealing with tough issues," Zhong says.
So maybe it's helpful that all this dissent has come now. China's decision-makers have time to digest the world's reactions and adjust their behavior accordingly.
But if the leadership can't—or won't—read the clear signals, if they stonewall, if they censor, if they bludgeon, the Olympic Games will become a mere sideshow. And those five rings, once filled with so much promise, will become rings of fire.