The China on display as host of the 2008 Olympic Games is a nation whose ambitions rival those of the athletes competing on the world's toughest stage. Over the next 17 days, the Games, which open today, are sure to be full of great human drama. Olympic moments have produced some of the most defining visual histories of our times. And as the Chinese have learned already, the Olympic spotlight can be as unforgiving as it is energizing.
In one sense, the Beijing Games already have captured the Olympic ideal. In its first time as host, China has built venues that stand as architectural marvels. It has showcased the richness of a 5,000 year-old civilization. The most populous nation on Earth has reminded the world of its economic and political weight.
But the world also has seen the dark side of China's authoritarian government in full dress. Having China host the Games was supposed to bring it closer into the fold of responsible nations. In many ways the opposite has happened, as China cracked down even further on dissent and censored journalists' Internet access in an attempt — of all things — to spare itself any further international shame. President Bush was right Thursday, on the eve of the Games, to express "deep concerns" for China's denial of basic human rights. He and many of the 80 heads of state scheduled to attend the opening ceremonies have danced around Chinese sensitivities. Beijing's deplorable rights record cannot be masked by the fanfare of the Olympic Games.
China's coming-out party on the Olympic stage is historic, but the moment belongs to the athletes. The years of sacrifices they have made embody the Olympic spirit and show the pride every nation brings to international competition.