The controversial decision by the International Olympic Committee to award China the 2008 Summer Games has, for better or worse, placed the world's most populous nation in the international spotlight. The decision angered some members of Congress and human rights groups, but it could have the effect of softening the harsh rule of Chinese leaders. And closer to home, it could turn out to be good news for Tampa and other U.S. cities bidding for the 2012 games.
While its abysmal human rights record and its bellicose foreign relations won't improve overnight, the Chinese government has invited the kind of world scrutiny it cannot easily ignore. The Olympic committee and sponsors need to use their considerable clout to ensure that it respects basic international norms in preparing for the Games. Among other things, it should insist on fair labor standards, housing for those displaced by construction, freedom of access and movement for workers, officials and journalists and a guarantee China won't harass foreign nationals. The extent of the work necessary to prepare for the Games will require broad and continuing contact between governments, contractors, media and private citizens from many nations on a scale China's regime has never allowed before. The IOC should be clear about its expectations.
Beijing's selection also marks an important test for the IOC. China's appeal stemmed in part from the challenge it gave the Olympic movement to test its political reach. Forgoing the comforts of Toronto or Paris was a way for the organization to reshape its image after the vote-buying scandals. Monday's election of Jacques Rogge, a Belgian surgeon and Olympic sailor, to succeed president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who is stepping down after 21 years, is another step toward bringing fresh leadership and accountability to the IOC.
Tampa and other U.S. cities bidding for 2012 are relieved about Beijing. Had Toronto won for 2008, the Olympics likely would not have returned to North America four years later. Some believe Toronto is the front-runner for 2012, but the dynamics of international competition mean that a U.S. bid is viable and commercially attractive. The United States Olympic Committee will visit Tampa next month; the exposure will underscore that bidding is serious business for any community, both in terms of civic identify and public construction dollars.