We've heard the opening ceremony will be breathtaking, remarkable, even unparalleled, as China tries its best to win the world's respect and admiration.
Certainly, the spectacle you'll see Friday night will be theatrically stunning. Beyond that, if you're assuming these Summer Games will become the greatest ever, this would be a good time to lower your expectations.
China might have created an impressive facade, but there's a lot that's odious about that government, how it has treated its people and how it has labored so desperately to cover up its pollution, rural poverty and political unrest while spending $43 billion on the Summer Games. Nobody can say how the Olympics will unfold, but don't be surprised if something happens to expose and embarrass the Chinese regime, no matter how many medals its athletes win.
As every host city learns, you can't fake it and fool the world. Atlanta learned that lesson in 1996, with its endless logistical troubles and controversies (not to mention the tragic bombing in Centennial Park).
Rest assured, great stories and heroes will spring forth in Beijing, as is the case at every Olympics. But even before they begin, these Summer Games have been tarnished by the Chinese government's deplorable actions, from its continuing human-rights violations to its repressive tactics against visiting athletes, spectators and media.
(One example: Organizers told the U.S. Olympic Committee that ample training locations for our athletes would be available, but then it was discovered China wouldn't extend that access to personal coaches, forcing the USOC to find facilities elsewhere.)
The stains are so rampant, so deep-rooted, I'm glad to watch this time and not spend thousands of company dollars to be there.
Five out of the past six Summer Olympics, it was my fortune and pleasure to be among the working media: Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, Athens in 2004.
Each Olympiad produced its own incredible moments, starting with the first. I'll never forget how overwhelming the Los Angeles extravaganza was, with 88 performers on baby-grand pianos playing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in astounding unison, a jet-propelled man flying himself into and around the coliseum, massive fireworks and pageantry, then a platform lifted by hydraulics for the cauldron lighting by decathlon legend Rafer Johnson. There was also an outpouring of goodwill when China's delegation marched in, after that nation had shunned the Olympics for decades.
That night, my story began with these words: "My God, the ultimate." And then, over the following two-plus weeks, came story after amazing story, from Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton to the U.S. men gymnasts (including Scott Johnson out of Wasson High School), women's marathoner Joan Benoit, Air Force Lt. Alonzo Babers of Colorado Springs in the 400 meters, and on and on.
Even though the former Soviet bloc (except for Romania) stayed home, in retaliation for America's 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games, what happened in Los Angeles vaulted the Olympics into a new echelon of global prominence.
Seoul lived up to the challenge, after its Uzi-toting soldiers "greeted" us at the airport, and one of the biggest U.S. stars was little-known Fort Carson boxer Andrew Maynard. Next, who could forget the archer's flaming arrow igniting the flame in 1992 at Barcelona? Then Atlanta, when Muhammad Ali lit the flame? The bombing almost overshadowed the Americans' performances, but the women's teams in gymnastics, synchronized swimming, softball and basketball still captured America's full attention.
After I missed Sydney in 2000, there was no hesitation at the chance to go to Athens. At the opening, I watched in awe as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, just steps away in the stadium's open air, worked the Olympic leadership in his campaign that made London the 2012 host city. Athens had its problems with late-finishing construction, but the people's spirit helped make Greece's Games a success.
Now, in 2008, we watch as China attempts to display its superiority, in ways that actually resemble Germany and Adolf Hitler in 1936 at Berlin.
We can only hope that, regardless of who wins the medals, the Olympic world as we know it will survive Beijing.
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