For an outfit that never used to have a problem with its own members taking graft, the International Olympic Committee sure seems conflicted about whether to cut China in.
There's a vote Friday in Moscow to decide the host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics. By most accounts, Beijing has the election sewn up. Critics argue that a win by China would only serve to validate one of the most brutal regimes in the world. Backers say it would accelerate reforms while the nation seeks acceptance from a finger-pointing international community. Both sides can cite important precedents.
But before delving into how the IOC wrestled with the moral implications of its decision, let's remember what this is really about.
It's not a coincidence that President Bush has remained neutral on the issue. Or that some of China's strongest support comes from the sponsors, networks and corporations that stand to reap windfalls when its 1.3-billion strong consumer market opens up. IOC voters don't know whether awarding Beijing the games will make China more democratic over time. But they do know it will make a lot of people rich.
Estimates vary on the amount of money the Chinese government will spend to upgrade its infrastructure -- transportation and water systems, stadiums and housing -- but they fall in a range between $10 billion and $20 billion. Besides the benefit of those capital improvements, another $6 billion or so will be pumped into the Chinese economy.
Keep those figures in mind when Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC's soon-to-be-retired boss gets up and claims credit for making the world a better place. For friends of the IOC, it probably will be.
The rest of us, meanwhile, will have to hope the Summer Games influence China much the same way they did South Korea. When Seoul won the IOC election in 1981, the country was run by a right-wing dictatorship with diplomatic ties to fewer than half the nations that sent teams to its 1988 Olympics. After the visitors departed, South Korea held democratic elections and doubled the number of countries that welcomed its ambassadors.
Unfortunately, that's not the only precedent for what the IOC is about to do. The 1936 Summer Games were awarded to Berlin, and for all the romanticized versions of Jesse Owens and a handful of black athletes shattering the notion of Aryan superiority and humiliating Adolf Hitler, the truth is they only firmed up his stranglehold on Germany.
The games were an overwhelming success, at least domestically. Germans won more medals and more golds than any other nation. Their spirit, hospitality and efficiency were praised throughout. One-time IOC boss Avery Brundage maintained until his dying day that the Berlin Games were -- to use Samaranch's mantra -- the best ever.
Of course, Brundage also browbeat his committee into awarding the 1940 Summer Games to Tokyo. No doubt, those would have been a rousing success, too, had World War II not forced their cancellation.
The runup to the vote has seen the debate take a nasty turn. China's abysmal human-rights record, drug use by its athletes and the smog that blots out the sun in Beijing for days at a time have all been brought up. And no one has to remind the IOC's biggest patron, NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol, which time zone China is stuck in.
But its defenders know how to play the game, too.
A report out this week from Amnesty International claimed nearly 3,000 people have been sentenced to death and 1,800 executed in China, many for petty crimes, in the past three months -- more than in the rest of the world for the last three years. No sooner had somebody waved a copy of the report than IOC member Alex Gilady noted that Dallas, campaigning to become the U.S. bid city in 2012, is in Texas, where 248 criminals were executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
''Are we saying that only Western countries should apply? We can't keep universality in the Olympics,'' Gilady said, ''and not give other people the chance to host them.''
That sounds like the answer Willie Sutton gave when he was asked why he robbed banks:
''Because that is where the money is,'' he said.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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