Various activists and politicians have been marking the date this week in a slightly different way, hammering China for failing to live up to the promises it made on human rights, press freedom, the environment and other issues in its 2001 bid to land the '08 Games.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced a nonbinding resolution to Congress over the weekend asking President Bush to "take immediate action to boycott the Summer Olympic Games of 2008 in Beijing" over China's support for the Sudanese government and other human rights offenses.
I'd bet $100 on Bush converting to Buddhism and switching to the Green Party while coming out as gay before I'd bet a nickel on the U.S. boycotting an Olympic Games in the world's biggest market, but how big a role can the Olympics -- a huge sporting event but a mere sporting event -- have in pushing a giant on the world stage into doing things it doesn't want to do?
"We believe the Games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible," International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge told Reuters Monday. "The Games are going to be a force for good. But the Games are not a panacea."
"I think he's right, they can't be a panacea," says Bill Mallon, co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians and author or co-author of several books on Olympic history. "The way they work as a force for good is something that Jim McKay, the old ABC sportscaster, said years ago: It's the largest peacetime gathering of humanity in the history of the world. There's no other time you bring people from 200 countries together peacefully like that."
But while peacefully bringing the nations of the world together can be a good thing in all sorts of ways, it doesn't necessarily mean much is going to change for the host city or country. Still, the Olympics have been known to make their weight felt.
"The preliminary one that got people going was in the '60s when the IOC convinced West and East Germany to enter a combined team," says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. "But the real one was 1988, where tremendous pressure was put on the South Korean military dictatorship in the years leading up to the '88 Games. You know, 'We might take the Games away from you.'
"Nobody said that in public, but you know, 'Things could go very badly for you.' So they did, in fact, in an amazing event, the dictatorship handed over power, held free elections, and South Korea's been a democracy ever since."
Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter and author of "The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History," says it might be an overstatement to say the Olympics were the major catalyst for democracy in South Korea, but, he writes in an e-mail, "they did play an important role."
Amid massive demonstrations for popular election of the president in June 1987, Oberdorfer writes, "It was touch and go whether the current leader, Chun Doo Hwan, who originally took power in a military coup, would accede to the popular election of his successor or would declare martial law and attempt to suppress the demonstrations by force. Finally he decided to let the people vote. Fear of losing the widely popular 1988 Olympics was a factor in Chun's decision, as was pressure from the U.S. not to use the troops."
"The unfortunate thing about this story is that it gave the IOC the excuse to use that as an example about how these Games were going to help China," Wallechinsky says. "And China's very different from South Korea. They don't care. They'll say, 'We're going to do things, fine.' They'll release a couple political prisoners every time somebody makes a visit, and then they'll just go on doing whatever they were doing.
"Up to this point, the Chinese have shown no intention at all of changing anything about their policies in any way in preparation for the Olympics."
An expert on China and human rights, who didn't want to be quoted on the record, told me that the Chinese government doesn't need pressure from the Olympic community, Amnesty International or any other international group, it has all the domestic pressure it could want from an increasingly restless population.
It's getting that pressure all the same.
"Unless the Chinese authorities take urgent measures to stop human rights violations over the coming year, they risk tarnishing the image of China and the legacy of the Beijing Olympics," Amnesty International secretary general Irene Khan said in a statement accompanying a report on China Tuesday. "Not only are we not seeing delivery on the promises made that the Olympics would help improve the human rights situation in China, but the police are using the pretext of the Olympics to extend the use of detention without trial."
Reporters Without Borders held a demonstration Monday in Beijing to protest China's treatment of journalists and information. China blocks access to many foreign Web sites and limits what domestic news outlets can publish. It also jails critical journalists and "cyber dissidents," Reporters Without Borders says. As if to prove the group's point, police scuffled with the protesters Monday and briefly detained them.
The group also says it presented a list of prisoners it wanted released to Chinese officials at a meeting in January, and that those officials had promised to take action, but had not. "Promises were made to us which were never kept," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Monday.
Students for a Free Tibet said Wednesday that eight Tibet independence activists had been arrested, then deported this week following demonstrations.
Others are expressing concerns about pollution -- an issue that has many countries' officials worried on behalf of their athletes -- food and consumer-product safety issues, labor exploitation and China's support for what Amnesty International and others say is a genocidal regime in Sudan.
China has a year to keep its promises, though it's sending signals it doesn't want to be pushed around on these matters.
"We welcome even more constructive criticism on faults and problems," Beijing Organizing Committee official Jiang Xiaoyu said at a press conference Monday. "But we absolutely oppose the politicization of the Olympics, as this does not accord with the Olympic spirit."
But even kept promises can expire once the Closing Ceremonies wind up, just as the new freedom of movement being enjoyed by foreign journalists within China is scheduled to end when the Olympics do.
Wallechinsky tells the story of working as a radio commentator at the Seoul Olympics, then sticking around for a few days afterward because he wanted to see the city.
"The day after the Closing Ceremonies," he says, "all of a sudden, for the first time since I'd been there, for like three weeks, there were beggars on the streets, there were street vendors. They had put up their version of a Potemkin Village. In this case it wasn't military repression, it was getting these undesirables off the street, making the city look good."
Wallechinsky says China can afford to fall back on its position as the world's emerging largest market to blow off criticism. "When it comes right down to it," he says, China's attitude will be, "'We'll be able to do whatever we want, and the TV isn't going to cover anything negative. They're just going to show the beautiful Opening Ceremonies. Because they need us.'
"That's their attitude, and that's how they're different from South Korea."
Previous column: 756: *?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -