BEIJING — Everywhere in Beijing are signs that this is it, the time for Beijing to take its place on the world stage, a place the Chinese fervently believe is rightfully theirs.
Already, Beijing's symbol of the 2008 Olympic Games, a stylized tai chi action figure, is emblazoned seemingly everywhere--on posters, on highway monuments, even in neon lights on the facades of large buildings. The Olympics are topic No. 1 in the schools, in the streets, in the bars, the stores, the taxicabs, even the Peking duck restaurants.
Beijing's desire to beat Paris and Toronto in its bid to host the 2008 Olympics has become a craving, almost an obsession, the manifestation of what China experts call a deep-rooted insecurity about this nation's place in the world.
The only salve is external validation--that is, an endorsement from outside that China is indeed deserving of the Games.
"There isn't another country in the world that cares more about how the rest of the world sees it than China," said Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley and a longtime China observer.
As China specialist Robert Ross of Boston College put it, a victory would serve as irrefutable proof to the Chinese that China is "on par with any country in the world and a leader, a player."
So the question on the eve of what will surely be one of the momentous elections in Olympic history, is this: Is the world ready, finally, to go to Beijing?
There are a host of complexities for the International Olympic Committee to consider in the first Summer Games to be awarded since the 1999 Salt Lake City corruption scandal.
Along with Beijing, Paris and Toronto, also on the July 13 IOC ballot but given little chance of winning are Osaka, Japan, and Istanbul, Turkey. No U.S. cities are in the running. Salt Lake City will play host in February to the 2002 Winter Games; the next American Olympics bid will be for the 2012 Summer Games.
In considering Beijing, foremost among the issues is consideration of human-rights concerns in a nation governed by an authoritarian, communist regime. Bringing the Games to China might well condone police repression, opponents say.
"If you want to look at historical precedents, I remember the Berlin Olympics in 1936," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), who in March introduced a resolution in Congress opposing the Beijing bid on human-rights grounds. "It was the high point of glory for Hitler's Germany because the Germans put on a spectacular show--as the Chinese will. And Hitler and his appalling regime were basking in the reflected glory of the Olympics."
But for a movement that makes much of "universality," inclusiveness, and--in this context--spreading the Games around the globe, many IOC members say the question about Beijing's bid is aptly framed this way: How can the Olympics not go to China?
"I have to argue for universality," said Australia's senior IOC member, R. Kevan Gosper, who stressed that he has not yet decided how he will vote. "When you look at that, you look at Beijing. It's hard to move from that. The universality of Olympism has been one of our greatest strengths over 100 years. And we've taken certain risks to maintain that ideal."
The IOC has ventured infrequently to developing nations for its showcase, the Summer Games--to Mexico City in 1968 and, some would say, to Seoul in 1988.
Other factors for the IOC to consider include the environmental impact of the grand-scale development needed to accommodate the Games in Beijing, as well as the promise of even more traffic.
The traffic already is awful. In 1980 there were 20 privately owned mechanized vehicles in Beijing; now, with economic growth galloping along at 8% annually, there are a total of 1.5 million cars, diesel-belching trucks and buses dueling on the roads with untold millions of bicycles. And no one yields.
Even China's experts acknowledge the challenge that lies ahead.
"This problem is not going to be solved in a day," said Liu Qin, a senior engineer at Beijing's central traffic authority. "If I even tell you we are going to solve this problem in a month, it is like saying I'm going to build a castle in the air."
The smog in Beijing is so bad that it's possible to be in the city for a week and never see the sun. And as for the summer weather, a bad day feels like Las Vegas in July but with the addition of brutal humidity.
Then there are the basics--whether athletes will feel comfortable eating the local food and drinking the water.
In truth, the tap water is generally fine. And, as locals and expatriates alike are fond of pointing out, the food can be astonishingly good, even great.
Even if one's taste runs to fast food, fear not. There are 69 McDonald's restaurants already operating in and around Beijing--more even than Paris, which has 63. (Toronto wins the McDonald's derby, with 233.)