BEIJING – Shimmering stadiums and billions of dollars spent to remake Beijing into a modern city have been overshadowed by pro-Tibet protests, chaos on the Olympic torch relay, and an anti-Western backlash by angry Chinese who sense their coming-out party is being spoiled.
With 100 days to go, the battle has been lost to keep politics out of the Beijing Olympics.
A year ago, former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch predicted Beijing would be the "best in Olympics history." A few weeks ago, his successor, Jacques Rogge, said the games were "in crisis."
The shine is off, and the question is this: Can China and the IOC restore some luster by returning sports and goodwill to the games?
The Olympics have been visited by politics before, but these have become the most contentious since the boycotts of the 1980s.
"The Chinese leadership has a major international public relations problem on its hands," said David L. Shambaugh, a political scientist and director of the China policy program at George Washington University.
"The Chinese government and citizenry are now involved in fighting a propaganda war with the West and the Western media in particular. ... This stance, taken together with hyper Chinese nationalism, has all the makings of a public relations disaster for the Olympic Games."
There's a rancorous atmosphere in Beijing these days.
Deadly riots last month in Tibet spurred anti-China protests in London, Paris, San Francisco and other cities of the torch relay. Last-minute rerouting of some legs created a farce. In Pakistan, India and elsewhere, organizers shortened routes, tightened security, and turned the relay into invitation-only events that kept out the general public.
The coverage of these protests has been met with a propaganda war by China, accusing the Western media of orchestrated bias — particularly CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp.
There have been nasty outbreaks of Chinese nationalism, fueled by the attack on a young Chinese athlete in a wheelchair who defended the Olympic torch at the relay in Paris. Claiming an insult to national pride, protesters have gathered outside the French retailer Carrefour in about a dozen Chinese cities, with small scuffles between Chinese and foreigners.
The Beijing Olympics were political from the moment China was chosen seven years ago by the IOC. This was followed by lavish, unprecedented spending on every phase of the games, a strategy by the ruling Communist Party aimed at showcasing China's growing economic and political power.
There's still time to rescue the games.
A tiny turnaround might begin with several low-key events Wednesday as organizers celebrate 100 days to go: a mini-marathon race around the two iconic Olympic venues — the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, and the swimming and diving arena dubbed the Water Cube — and the finals of a four-year contest to pick official Olympic songs.
The return of the Olympic flame to mainland China in early May could signal that the worst is over, with the domestic portion of the relay likely to have few protests — at least that anyone will see.
The flame arrives in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Three pro-Tibet activists who planned to protest in Hong Kong were deported after they arrived at its airport Tuesday. On Saturday, three Danish human rights activists also were detained and deported.
Despite security clampdowns and tightened visa restrictions to keep out troublesome foreigners, disruptions still could occur during the torch relay elsewhere in China, particularly in Tibet or the western region of Xinjiang.
Any partial boycott of the opening ceremony — a response to the crackdown in Tibet — would stir more anti-Western sentiment.
China's offer last week to start talks with representatives of the Nobel Peace laureate Dalai Lama might help to defuse demonstrations.
English-speaking Chinese volunteers — about 70,000 are expected at the games — may also soften the edge once the games begin. At test venues, they've swarmed foreign reporters, helping with translation, or simply stood at attention wearing yellow, smiley-face buttons.
A draconian plan to shut down heavy industries and halt construction has been announced to temporarily rid Beijing of its air pollution, which had been the most menacing problem for the games until the Tibet rioting.
"I believe the image of China's Olympics is still good," said Jin Yuanpu, a political scientist and executive director of the Humanistic Olympic Center at Renmin University in Beijing. "It's just the Western media and some Westerners who are taking this opportunity to attack us. Chinese are trying their best to be a good host."
Of course, potential flashpoints loom.
During the games, protests of Chinese policies in Tibet and Darfur could attract wide coverage by 30,000 journalists, testing government tolerance. Spared so far, high-profile Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola and General Electric could be dragged in.
"If someone unfurls a Tibet banner in the crowd, it will be recorded on TV or by a mobile phone even if the police move in fairly quickly," said Brian Bridges, a political scientist at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "Of course, this will be projected around the world. I don't know if security will be prepared to deal with this in a way that won't look violent or heavy-handed."
A few weeks ago in Beijing, Rogge defended the athletes' right of free speech as a "basic human right," saying that except for some Olympic venues, "there is absolutely no problem for an athlete to express his or her views."
He spoke just days after a dissident Hu Jia was sent to prison for inciting "to subvert state power." His charges weren't linked to the Olympics, but he had been critical of the games and published an essay called "The Real China and the Olympics."
China and the IOC have always said the games are about sports, not politics. At a news conference earlier this month with top-ranking IOC officials, however, the first comment from Wang Wei, the executive vice president and general secretary of the Beijing organizing committee, was a long defense of China's Tibet policy.
Wang sat beside Hein Verbruggen, and his comments came as the Dutch IOC member gave an impassioned defense of the IOC, saying it's a sporting body that should avoid political issues.
"There is a very thick, fat red line between the two," Verbruggen said of politics and sports.
At several sports venues during test events, politics were on the table. A 180-page government-published book in English was available to reporters explaining Chinese foreign policy, defense policy, religious freedom and human rights.
High-profile personalities have openly pressured China.
Steven Spielberg declined to serve as an artistic adviser, Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai refused to carry the torch, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei — a consultant on the Bird's Nest — openly called the building a "fake smile" hiding the reality of the one-party state.
John MacAloon, an Olympic historian at the University of Chicago, says even if there are no protests at the games by foreigners, many Chinese are likely to be offended by freewheeling Western journalists who will "attempt to joke at, humiliate and embarrass the host nation."
"The Chinese are not prepared for the kind of press freedom that happens at every Olympics and produces insult and bad feelings," MacAloon said. "Everything that gets written will be instantly fed back to the students and the Internet community in Beijing. I'm at least as worried about student protests over these perceived insults against China as I am about anything the state is going to do."
A year ago, a state-published magazine wrote that "Chinese security experts expect no serious problems" for the Olympics. Now, government officials are warning that terrorism is the biggest threat to the games, and they've been promised cooperation from Interpol to thwart any attack.
State media reported in March that a highjacking plot was foiled in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang. Earlier this month, Chinese police said they uncovered a "violent terrorist gang" in Xinjiang that planned to kidnap athletes and Olympic visitors, but they gave scant evidence.
Despite the slogan of "One World, One Dream," these are largely China's games. A several-year effort by the IOC to bring in foreign experts — common in recent games — was rebuffed by Chinese organizers.
Two months ago, Beijing organizers said all 28 competition managers would be Chinese nationals who are more likely to listen to the dictates of Chinese officials over the objections of the IOC or others.
Two of the main venues — the Water Cube and the Athletes' Village — were designed by the Australian company PTW Architects. The design team for the Water Cube consisted of about 20 architects and engineers, three of whom were Chinese. The design team for the Athletes' Village consisted of about eight architects, one of whom was Chinese. But at the openings of both buildings, only Chinese architects and engineers were on hand.
Marking the end of centuries of decline, Western colonization and humiliation in war by Asian rival Japan, China sees the games as its coronation as a modern state — a ritual ceremony that foreigners would be rude to interrupt.
"To me, these games remain a mystery that could go various ways," said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and author who has covered 12 Olympics and opposed the choice of Beijing.
"I thought it was a big mistake. I'm not surprised it's going the way it's going. I don't think it's going to change China, or at least the control of the Chinese Communist Party. The main result is that it's a black eye for the Olympics, and an unnecessary black eye."