BEIJING, July 18 (UPI) -- The Olympics are about the athletes and the performances. All else -- in theory -- is set aside.
But some of the greatest performances in Olympic history were overshadowed.
Bob Beamon leaped 29 feet 2 1/2 inches -- almost 2 feet farther than the long jump world record -- in winning the gold medal at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. But the enduring image of those Games is of defiant, black-gloved fists thrust in the air.
Four years later, swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals. But the Munich Games are remembered for a masked terrorist on a balcony, a demolished helicopter, the massacred Israeli team members and a heart-broken nation.
This sets the stage for Beijing in 2008. The Chinese bid for the Games in the hopes it would show the world their nation's greatness. That could happen. It is very possible the lasting image of 2008 will be the elevation of athletic achievements and spirit.
However, with recent events -- China's record on human rights, the recent crackdown in Tibet that fostered Olympic Torch run protests, Beijing's infamous pollution issues and the many geopolitical tensions centered on the United States and plots meant to disrupt the Games but that the Chinese said they have cracked-- the 2008 Games could be another Tiananmen and remembered in a way the Chinese would rather not.
It makes billions of dollars to prepare for the Olympics but countries beg for the chance to call the Olympics their own.
Afterward there are the inevitable questions of whether it was worth it. And the bigger question of has the Olympics outgrown its usefulness. Is it so big, that it can't be limited to athletics? It is such a ripe target for horrific events or host-embarrassing protests that stringent security measures are needed, measures that limit the freedom and friendship the Games are meant to foster.
The Olympics are, at heart, a gathering of the world's greatest athletes. That will certainly happen in Beijing.
Approximately 10,000 men and women representing 205 countries will take part in 32 sports contested in 37 locations from shortly after sunrise until long after dark for 16 consecutive days.
There will be 302 gold medals awarded in everything from the classic and elegant equestrian dressage to the exhausting and gritty business of the triathlon.
Previously unknown participants will emerge as superstars. Pre-Olympic favorites will go home empty-handed. Large men will lift a quarter of a ton of weight over their heads. Small women will do flip flops 4 feet off the floor on a device 16 feet long and just 4 inches wide.
It will take only a few hours to determine some champions, such as the winners of the men's and women's marathon. But it will take almost the entire length of the Games to figure out which nation has the best basketball or volleyball team.
Heartening stories will abound.
Michael Phelps, a Maryland native who happens to have the perfect aerodynamic shape for swimming fast and who has trained to a Herculean degree, will attempt to win more gold medals in a single Olympics than anybody has before. He has a realistic chance for eight (in five individual events and three relays) -- which would break Spitz's record.
In a year when immigration reform is a U.S. election issue, those representing the red, white and blue in the Olympic 1,500-meter run own birth certificates from Kenya, Mexico and Sudan.
Helen Wills and Steffi Graf, two of the greatest stars women's tennis has ever known, managed to win both the Wimbledon singles title and the Olympic gold medal in the same year. Venus Williams may now do the same thing -- for the second time.
Injuries and illnesses are often an issue and they will be again this year.
Russia's Yuliya Pechonkina owns the world record in the women's 400-meter hurdles, but a heart condition will apparently keep her out of the Olympics.
No man in history has run 100 meters faster than Tyson Gay did at the American trials, but he suffered a severe cramp in the 200 quarterfinals and failed to make the team in that event. Although he has said he will be at full strength by the Olympics, his every step will be watched prior to the opening round of the 100, scheduled for Aug. 15.
The U.S. women's soccer team hasn't been beaten this year -- and tied only once in 22 games -- but a broken left leg suffered by main scoring threat Abby Wambach doesn't make the Americans the cinch winners they had appeared to be.
But from the first competition (six women's soccer games contested two days before the opening ceremonies) until the last (the gold medal game in men's team handball Aug. 24), the world will be watching to see how the hosts treat their guests -- and vice versa.
From the July 2001 day Beijing was awarded the Olympics, there have been concerns over traffic, pollution and the heat and the world has been twisted into a much different place than it was seven years ago.
Some fixes can be made: The number of vehicles on the road will be reduced during the Games and some polluting businesses will be closed for the duration. The heat will simply have to be endured, just as it was in Barcelona and Atlanta.
There is another kind of heat. The great passion for sports makes the Olympics a great platform to express other passions. What of the contentious political issue of China's security clampdown in Tibet?
"The practice of sport is a human right," reads the Olympic charter, the document that spells out the ideals that lie behind the Games. "Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
Demonstrations by athletes are forbidden by the International Olympic Committee, punishable by immediate expulsion from the Games and the stripping of any awards -- such as a hard-earned gold medal. There isn't likely to be any Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fist protests on the medal stands.
Free speech, however, is another matter. The heads of the Olympic teams from Australia and New Zealand have said they would not attempt to gag their athletes. Wearing a T-shirt with a message won't be tolerated. But expressing an opinion during a news conference will be within the competitors' rights.
"Olympism is a philosophy of life," the charter also says, "exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Such worthwhile thoughts, say those who strongly support the Olympics, are enough to keep the huge gathering alive -- even if the passage of time has caused those principles to often become frayed around the edges.
The athletes have been training years for this one moment in the Olympic limelight. It is still to be decided what lasting image the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing will provide.