More often than not we fail — if by "we" we mean human beings in full generality. If some superpower government isn't boycotting some other superpower's party, then a bigot or other sort of mediocrity is setting bombs or assassinating athletes just to see it happen. When we survive the games without incident, as we survived 2004 in Athens, we feel a little better about humanity for a while.
The games opened last weekend in Beijing with equal parts curiosity and apprehension, as if the planet's oldest and largest civilization is a new character on the world stage and we don't know how she's going to act. China is rich, beautiful, powerful and stubborn. China is consumptive, polluted, abusive and ambitious. And now China throws the Olympics as her "coming out party," to use words common for the occasion.
You saw the opening ceremony, a $300 million production featuring literally a cast of thousands, perhaps surpassing any live performance in projected human history for its scope and precision.
Without knowing exactly what China wanted to demonstrate, we saw echoes of a long, deep history, extravagant wealth, technological might, mass discipline and a rather unsettling martial enthusiasm.
China's impact in the United States long precedes the Olympics, of course, and the big question is where the U.S. and China will go from here. It's said that China is building the equivalent of a Houston every month, driving up worldwide prices for steel and other building materials to say nothing of petroleum. As of May, according to the United States treasury department, China holds $506 billion of the U.S. debt, which is up to $9.6 trillion. China seems to be in pretty good shape right now, except for its rapidly aging population.
Relations between China and the United States are polite but tense. The plot thickens. It's widely understood that they're the world's two most powerful countries and that their interactions will shape the world in the 21st century, but they differ in how they see the world all the way down the the level of basic human cognition, and they're neither allies nor enemies.
They are, however, the new top rivals in the Olympics, especially after China's emergence as an athletic power in the 2004 games. While the Americans led the way with 36 golds, 39 silvers and 102 total medals, China came in second with 32 golds and third with 63 total medals.
Now, with China further committed to the games in its own country, forecasters believe the U.S. and China will come up close to even in Beijing. Wrapping up the first weekend, the U.S. led with eight total medals, but China led with four golds.
China has moved steadily up the Olympic charts since it was first admitted by the International Olympic Committee in 1984. For the first time, China has qualified athletes in all 28 Olympic sports, fattening its team from 407 athletes in 2004 to 639 athletes in 2008. Just the sheer numbers make China a threat.
The United States sent 596 athletes in 27 sports (the U.S. didn't qualify in men's or women's team handball), while Russia, the other athletic power, qualified 407 athletes ranging through every sport except baseball, soccer, field hockey, softball and taekwondo.
If the Olympics mean anything at all, though, they can't be so much about which country is the best as which athlete is the best. The distractions wouldn't intrude if the games didn't matter in the first place, and the games always matter because these are most of the world's best athletes.
None are better than American swimmer Michael Phelps, built to cut water with his 6-foot-7 wingspan and size 14 feet. Phelps is already the world's best swimmer, and he's about to make a mark on his sport like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan, as well as a mark on the Olympics like no one else.
At 23, Phelps hasn't even grown into his athletic prime, yet he won eight medals (six golds and two bronzes) at the 2004 Games, the most medals for one athlete at one Olympics. Phelps dominated the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, winning seven gold medals and setting five world records.
Four gold medals in the Beijing Games would give Phelps 10 career Olympic golds, the most in Olympic history. He began that campaign with a timely announcement Saturday, setting a world record in the 400-meter medley for his first gold of these games.
Many commentators expect the Americans to dominate in track and field, softball, women's basketball and swimming while pressuring Romania in gymnastics. The suspense for American sports fans lies in baseball and men's basketball, both American inventions in which the Yanks have skimped on their teams during recent years.
Following a third-place performance in 2004 with a hodgepodge outfit, the American basketball effort finally realized it can't just roll out five guys with a ball and take over the world. This year's team — featuring Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James — could be the best assembled since the 1992 Dream Team. If so, then this team will break an eight-year gold medal drought for American men's basketball in world competition.
At least we won't have to say this time that the Americans didn't practice enough. The three-year commitment requested for the players to cover these Olympics and the 2006 World Championships could meld enough cohesion for a gold medal against increasingly stiff competition. The Americans finished third in the 2006 Championships, losing to Greece in the semifinals.
About half of that team is intact and the coach, Mike Krzyzewski, can bring it together. If the Americans can't win gold this time, we'll know for sure that the world has caught up, because USA Basketball is taking it seriously.
Like the men's basketball team, the American national baseball team also hasn't won a world competition since taking gold at the 2000 Olympics. For these Olympics, the Americans have assembled a team of high-level minor leaguers managed by ex-Reds skipper Davey Johnson. The Americans are regarded as contenders but not favorites.
In the background, we'll keep an eye on China, which has loosened its economy without loosening its totalitarian ways. Seizing its chance to show off before the world, China has given the rest of us a window to see what's in there.