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: 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 torch routes, tightened security and turned the relay into invitation-only events that kept out the 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's still time to rescue the Games. A tiny turnaround might begin with several low-key events today 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 the worst is over, with the domestic portion of the relay likely to have few protests — at least that anyone will see.
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 tensions.
"I believe the image of China's Olympics is still good," said Jin Yuanpu, political scientist and executive director of the Humanistic Olympic Center at Renmin University. "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."
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."