THE TOLL of one day in May transformed the Beijing Olympics long before they were to begin. These Games always figured to be seismic in some fashion, if not for the change they could trigger, then for the conflict they would court. Tibet, Darfur, human rights, press freedom, environmental degradation—the world spent the spring airing its grievances with the regime that rules the People's Republic, disrupting the Olympic torch relay and once actually forcing officials to snuff out the flame.
Then came the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province, with its 70,000 dead and 5 million homeless. Suddenly the Olympic narrative struck out in a new direction. The story ceased to be solely that of a repressive state bent on using the Beijing Games to aggrandize the Communist Party, muzzle dissent and squeeze as many medals as possible from its demographic bounty. Instead the temblor shook the world with a reminder that China is still a country of 1.3 billion human beings.
And those people are fevered and proud to be hosting and contesting these Olympics. (The stick figure in the official logo is both throwing its arms out in welcome and breasting the tape.) In a 2001 Gallup poll, some 95% of Beijingers said they welcomed the Games, and since then the other 5% have been careful to keep their counsel. The many Chinese who lived through the hermetic paranoia of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s are now late-in-life witnesses to the grandest, most outgoing gesture in their nation's two-millennia-long history.
As the earthquake put the people back in the People's Republic, it highlighted Beijing's status as capital of a forward-hurtling land of huge urban catch basins—more than 100 cities of at least a million residents. When the effect of all these people so overwhelms nature that she rebels—be it with an algae bloom that imperils the sailing competition, or airborne particulates that threaten athletes' ability to breathe—Beijing organizers respond with overwhelming human force. Battalions scoop the gunk out, and workers idle themselves so as not to befoul the air with their factories or cars. The answer to too many people is more people.
Nothing better gets the attitude of the Chinese toward these Olympics than that most prosaically Western of things, a TV commercial. The ad, for Adidas, opens with a Chinese women's basketball player dribbling down a "court" of human hands that reach up to meet her footfalls. After she sinks a layup at a basket stanchion composed of people, a male athlete dribbles a soccer ball along a "field" of more Chinese humanity. And so on—with a phalanx of women's volleyball players who rise for a block as a crowd of Chinese leaps behind them, and a male diver who plunges from a tower of people into a pool of people, whereupon "water" ripples outward. The point of the spot: Every citizen has a hand in the rise to the top of the cream of a billion-plus crop.
A MAP OF Beijing—which every eight months must be revised to keep up with the epidemiological growth of the city's population (now 17.4 million)—documents $40 billion in Games-related construction. Venues to the north, east and west trace an arc over Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, with most clustered in the Olympic Green (gatefold map, page 53), where opening ceremonies will begin at 8 p.m. on 8/8/08. The Green sits in perfect alignment with China's historic seat of power.
The principles of feng shui hold that positive energy flows north from the auspicious, tradition-laden south—yet the most striking venues on the Green are modern and internationalist. The National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube, is an Australian-Chinese collaboration that leaves spectators feeling as if they're submerged. The adjacent National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird's Nest, at one point engaged some 7,000 workers in its construction. A $500 million concrete bowl, it's enrobed in welters of steel and glows red at night.
Ai Weiwei, the Chinese architect who worked with a Swiss firm to design the Bird's Nest, calls it "an object for the world." Ai is no Party hack. The son of a poet who lived in the U.S. for years, he has been critical of the Chinese system. The stadium, he said in the 2005 documentary China Rises, "reflects the ambitions [and] dreams of our time. They may fail, they may disappoint, [but] they still say a lot about China at this moment, its hopes and how it would like the world to see it."
Even a decade ago, China would never have let foreign firms or politically ambiguous citizens shape the enduring symbols of an Olympics. The regime's indulgence suggests a desire to gait its people to the reality reflected in the gauzy Games slogan of One World, One Dream: that China aspires to be more than just a global economic player. The host country sees the Games as an exercise in meeting the world halfway. Hence the efforts to teach English to cab drivers and eliminate offensive behavior like spitting in public—and the entire bureaucracy, the Beijing Civilization Office, charged with enforcing those standards.
THE PRECISE orientation of public buildings is but one example of how, in China, things often mean more than they appear to. The Games' five mascots, the Fuwa, represent not just the five colors of the Olympic rings but also the five elements of nature (water, forest, fire, earth and sky); the five traditional blessings (prosperity, happiness, passion, health and good luck); and, in the characters' names—Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini—a message: Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni, or Beijing Welcomes You.