Beijing — Beijing - For the past seven years, through clouds of construction dust, thousands of meetings, millions of man-hours and unprecedented political mobilization, China has waited for today to showcase its best side to the world.
At $41 billion, the Beijing Olympics are perhaps the most expensive coming-out party in history. And the belle of the ball has a lot to be proud of. China and its people have risen from poverty and social chaos to engineer one of the largest, most sustained economic success stories in history.
They've put themselves on the global political map and become a model for developing countries. With a delegation of 600 athletes, they also hope to punctuate their accomplishments with a slew of gold medals between now and Aug. 24.
"This is such a great moment for China," said Chen Yongming, 55, an engineer and big fan of track and field, table tennis and swimming. "We're very proud of our civilization and hope to win support from the international community."
At a time when the government should be beaming, however, it has the jitters. An attack on a police station in the province of Xinjiang on Monday in the nation's far western reaches that killed 16 paramilitary members hasn't helped.
Nor has an expected wave of protests by foreign activists keen to "bait the panda bear" having managed to enter China despite stepped-up visa restrictions, a real-name ticketing system and extensive screening.
Almost lost in the lead-up is the fact that the world has gathered here for a sporting event. About 10,700 athletes from 205 countries will be competing in 28 sports. After finishing second to the United States in the gold-medal standings - 36 to 32 - in Athens four years ago, China, according to experts, could prevail this time.
Chinese sports officials downplay that possibility, saying it is more important that the country stages a successful Games. Still, seven years ago they implemented Project 119, with an engine of 3,000 sports schools throughout the country, designed to make China an international sports superpower.
The United States counters with a typically strong team led by swimmer Michael Phelps, a Rodgers Forge native who, after winning six gold medals in Athens, could surpass Mark Spitz's single-Games record of seven by winning eight; Towson native Katie Hoff, Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate who is attempting to win six; women gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, both vying for the all-around championship and the title as the "Next Mary Lou"; and track and field stars Tyson Gay, Allyson Felix and Jeremy Wariner.
While some expect the early overhang of tension and heavy-handed security to fade as the Games get under way, the difficult lead-up has left some wondering whether this party is worth the price tag.
"There's been a drastic change in outlook by the political leadership from 'coming-out show' to 'let's let the Olympics pass without a crisis,' " said Cheng Li, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They've really lowered expectations."
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge acknowledged this week that the Chinese face "some challenges." But he remains at least publicly optimistic about the next 16 days. "I think history will view the Games as a significant milestone in China's remarkable transformation," Rogge said.
Seven years ago, when Beijing waxed euphoric at having won the right to host the 2008 Games, there were visions of a surging economy, unqualified international praise and an improved media and human rights record that would reverse the stain of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and cement China's spot at the global table.
While some of this has materialized, the fates have not blessed China despite today's carefully timed opening ceremony linked to a belief in lucky eights - 8/8/08 at 8:08 p.m.
This year has seen a series of food and toy quality scandals, a massive February snowstorm, Tibetan riots in March, the torch relay protests in April and massive Sichuan earthquake in May.
The government also finds itself battling a chorus of foreign critics howling that it has not met the press freedom and human rights commitments agreed to in 2001. If anything, the government has cracked down harder on critics and activists in recent months to safeguard order and avoid embarrassment.
Predictions of economic bounty after the Games seem elusive amid a slowing U.S. economy and tighter visa policies that have undercut tourism.
And the blue sky China promised, and spent an estimated $17 billion to make happen, has remained frustratingly elusive despite traffic reduction measures, shuttered factories, cloud seeding and appeals to ancient gods.
While part of China's objective in hosting the Games is to impress the world, a bigger focus is boosting domestic support for the leadership by linking it with sports, patriotism and gold medals, a strategy, incidentally, Western leaders are not above.
"It's also a way to turn people's minds from corruption and the push for multi-party democracy," said Liu Junning, researcher with the Beijing-based Institute of Chinese Culture.
In America's quest for gold, meanwhile, one of the biggest spotlights will be on the "Redeem Team." After a stunning third-place finish in Athens, the men's basketball team, led by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) and Dwyane Wade, has been relentless against international competitors in recent exhibitions. If the United States falls short again, it might be at the hands of Spain, led by Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers teammate, Pau Gasol.
Relentless also will be NBC's coverage, which will be provided by USA, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen, Telemundo, Universal HD and, of course, the mother peacock network herself. Gymnastics and swimming finals, the marathons and some beach volleyball will be held during the morning hours in Beijing so they can be viewed live in the United States by prime-time audiences.
Concerned that television audiences for the Olympics are skewing older, and becoming smaller, the IOC has attempted in recent years to add sports that might attract younger fans. The new sport this year is BMX, which features daredevils on motorcycles most recently seen competing in the X Games.
Another challenge for the IOC: drug scandals that have tainted the Olympics for more than three decades. Several athletes, including virtually the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team, already have been excluded from their Olympic teams because of failed drug tests in advance of the Games. Despite advances in detecting banned drugs, Rogge predicts at least 40 positive tests will be discovered in Beijing.
Greek officials have warned that criticism is almost inevitable when hosting the Games, recalling the media skewing they received over a last-minute scramble to finish the venues before the 2004 Athens Games. But Communist China, with its controlled media, monopoly political system and limits on association, is not used to such a free-for-all.
Behind China's welcoming smile is a feeling, stemming back to the Tibetan riots, that the foreign guests are spitting in the soup by focusing on a few blemishes and missing its accomplishments.
Many Chinese also believe their country is being held to an unfair standard. Neighboring India cuts oil deals with Iran, has rampant child labor problems, is racked with corruption and is building up its military in line with a booming economy. Yet in the eyes of the world, that's different.
Part of the perception gap reflects China's unique political culture, with its emphasis on face and a leadership that projects perfection at stage-managed meetings. In promising a perfect Olympics, with a pledge to keep protesters and even the weather under control, China has set itself up for disappointment and set up a challenge for protesters.
"The big picture is, China is changing," Brooking's Li said. "But this can be painful. And it comes with big expectations from the outside world in areas where China isn't always ready to change, including its values and its behavior."