After an Olympic lull, Beijing makes Games interesting again

At initial glance, you might think the International Olympic Committee blundered by awarding the 2008 Games to a city in a totalitarian country that aids Darfur's thugs but considers the Dalai Lama a menace, and that censors political debate but can't silence the hacking coughs from some of the planet's most polluted cities.

Actually, it was an inspired decision. Beijing is just what the Olympics need.

There was a time when the Olympics were an eagerly awaited quadrennial spectacle, the ultimate competition that provided the two most important elements in sports: someone to root for and someone to root against. There were the good guys: America and the other democracies, as their athletes competed fairly and squarely for the simple love of sport and never, ever, under any circumstances, took performance enhancers stronger than spinach and Wheaties. And there were the bad guys: the amoral communists who were breast-fed testosterone and bottle-fed EPO, raised by godless governments and trained 24/7 in secret underground laboratories where every muscle was chemically enhanced and precisely monitored.

Oh, the Olympics were deliciously dramatic in those Bruce Jenner and Ivan Drago days, providing sporting showdowns in the welcome place of nuclear confrontation: The violent 1956 Hungary-Soviet water polo match ("Hey, why does the water look so reddish?"), the 1972 U.S.-Soviet basketball game ("They screwed us!"), and, of course, the 1980 U.S.-Soviet hockey game ("Do you believe in miracles? Yes!").

And then came the breakup of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, there was no great Olympic villain, just a bunch of earnest and dedicated but underfunded athletes struggling to compete for countries so new the IOC couldn't always find a recording of their national anthems for the medal ceremonies. Worse, there were no great heroes, either. We learned that (gasp!) our own athletes cheated just as readily as we thought the Soviets or East Germans ever had, or at least ours did so when not busy preening for the cameras, saluting their shoe-company banner and breaking up their cabin furniture on the Queen Mary 2.

It's hard to root for an Olympian who travels with a crew of bodyguards, P.R. types and personal trainers while showing more allegiance to a swoosh than to the Stars and Stripes.

The Olympics long ago became as much about TV programming as competition, but with the Soviet breakup -- coupled with cable TV and the Internet destroying the old news cycle and rendering tape delay as obsolete as the telegraph -- such programming lost appeal. The Games steadily lost their cache to the point that they were falling in the ratings to exhibition football games and the sacred new national pastime of competitions -- "American Idol." (Meanwhile, Bruce Jenner looks as though he's artificially enhanced his body, as well, or at least his face.)

And here is where Beijing comes in.

The four other finalists for the 2008 Olympics were Paris; Toronto; Osaka, Japan; and Istanbul, Turkey; each is a fine, attractive city, and all are most certainly less controversial than Beijing. We would not see "Free Saskatchewan" protests leading up to Toronto. But that's precisely the point: Whether it was the IOC's intention or not, due to all the surrounding sagas, Beijing has made the Olympics interesting again.

Don't misunderstand. This is not at all to say China is the new Soviet Union. But the controversies over Tibet and Darfur, the concern over free speech, pollution and working conditions, along with the tragic Sichuan earthquake (imagine the nonstop media coverage and finger-pointing if an earthquake killed more than 70,000 in the U.S.), put China in the sort of spotlight normally reserved for Angelina Jolie's baby bump. China not only rekindled interest in the Olympics, it even made people care about the Olympic torch relay for the first time. Truly, an Olympian achievement.

So we will tune in to see whether the pollution and air quality is really as bad as the media makes out -- so bad that, as one colleague jokes, even the swimming pool will be littered with oil spills, beer cans and cigarette butts. The world-record holder in the marathon, Ethiopia's Haile Gebreselassie, says he won't run the event due to health concerns. "I do not want to kill myself in Beijing," he told a Spanish newspaper. "The marathon will be impossible because of the pollution, heat and humidity."

We will tune in to see whether any athletes defy little-known IOC codicils restricting political messages (Gasp! Politics in the Olympics?) to make a statement on Tibet or Darfur. American softball player Jessica Mendoza said she doesn't plan any sort of protest, but was hopeful she can make a positive statement anyway. "I don't think it's my place to tell China what to do," Mendoza said. "It's more my place to tell people what's happening. Hopefully, the more they know what's happening, the more they'll hold the people responsible accountable."

We will tune in to see the spectacle of all those gorgeous (and expensive) new arenas, and wonder whether a protest breaks out in any one of them, and how the government will handle it.

But, mostly, we will tune in to see the athletes.

Our interest sufficiently stoked again, we will follow the Games to see whether Michael Phelps can match (or better) Mark Spitz's seven gold medals (though he will definitely not match him for facial or chest hair). Whether 41-year-old, five-time Olympic swimmer Dara Torres can top her age-defiant performance at the U.S. trials, perhaps by winning a gold medal while pushing her daughter on one of those Styrofoam swim boards. Whether Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat, Mexican immigrant Leonel Manzano and Lopez Lamong, a former Lost Boy of Sudan, can make Lou Dobbs turn purple by medaling as American immigrants in the men's 1,500. Whether the U.S. can again take home gold in its national pastimes of baseball and basketball or else spend the month explaining what went wrong. Whether Tyson Gay can claim the title of world's fastest man after running the 100 meters better than any human has without having an airport shuttle to catch when your flight leaves in 30 minutes.

We'll watch those and thousands of other athletes from around the globe, including China's Liu Xiang, who is truly one in a billion (actually, one in more than a billion). Can he repeat as a gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles while carrying the weight of his nation on his shoulders? We'll see. But you know how American coaches and athletes often try to downplay a poor performance by saying, "A billion people in China don't care"? Well, Liu Xiang won't be able to say it because China has such high expectations for these Olympics that not even Brad Walker could pole-vault over them. These Olympics are China's coming-out party -- the nation is expected to top the medal count (not that nationalism or politics plays any role in the Olympics) -- to show how much the country has progressed since Chairman Mao, and we'll all tune in to see how things look.

And not to sound like an apologist for China's government, but before we get too high and mighty with our moralizing, we should pause to look in the mirror. Yes, China's policies in Tibet and Darfur are contemptuous. Then again, there are many U.S. policies and actions that draw international ire, as well.

Sportswriters moaning about Internet firewalls and governmental snooping in Beijing are both flattering themselves that a Chinese bureaucratic gnome actually cares what we write about LeBron James' shooting percentage and also neglecting the fact technically our Internet traffic is monitored here, as well, albeit by your boss or your e-mail provider, not by the government. And yes, Beijing is so polluted there may be more toxic waste at the Games than at any sporting event since Lenny Dykstra retired. But Vancouver, which hosts the next Winter Games, dumps untreated sewage into coastal waters.

And the reason China made so many of those lead-paint toys is, after all, because we were buying them on sale at Wal-Mart.

China is the world's most populous nation, home to at least 90 cities with populations greater than 1 million -- and you've never heard of most of them. Beijing is an explosive world city, adding 1,000 cars a day to its roads and seemingly that many cranes to its skyline. Yes, banners here celebrate Mao, who may have been responsible for as many deaths as Stalin and Hitler combined; yet this is also a nation that has changed by leaps and bounds since 1984, when China sent its first team to a Summer Games.

Rob Gifford's entertaining and educational journey across the country's main highway, "China Road," paints a picture of the nation that is both disturbing (pollution, corruption, ethnic crackdowns and governmentally forced abortions) and exhilarating. China is never simple ("if you're not confused," he writes, "then you haven't been paying attention"), but a message that comes through often in his book is that for its faults, the nation continually offers more options and freedom to its citizens than one or two generations before.

"For me," Gifford writes of a bus conversation with a man in his 50s, "the mere possibility of government intrusion in my life is unacceptable. For him, the fact those possibilities have receded, even if they are still there in the background, means modern China is Paradise. 'Compared to what?' is always the question you have to ask in China. This man has probably seen and suffered things, and participated in events few Westerners have ever had to bear. Now he can choose what he does. And that, to him, is progress."

So we should keep an open mind as we watch the upcoming 17 days of competition. We'll see something astounding every day, something that will make our hearts race and our chests swell (well, maybe not if we're watching rhythmic gymnastics). And along the way, despite the Chinese government's best efforts, we may just learn a little bit about this nation that is home to so many people and looms so large in our future.

And in the meantime, hopefully they won't call in our bank loans.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.