Less than a month to go until the Olympics and world leaders are finally announcing their plans, with hardly a party pooper in the bunch. George W. Bush will be there, saying he's going for the sake of the athletes and "the Chinese people." That sentiment was echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who backtracked on threats to sit out by declaring, "I don't think you can boycott a quarter of humanity." Even leaders who passed on the invite insist it's not political: both Germany's chancellor and Canada's prime minister said their decision to stay home was due to scheduling conflicts.
Sounds like spin—but the politicos may be right. The Games have moved past their days as a stage for ideological battles, most infamously in 1936 Berlin (when Jesse Owens prevailed over Hitler's propaganda) and in the dueling cold-war boycotts of 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles). Since the Soviet Union's demise, the Olympics have grown free of international politicking: the 1996 Atlanta Games were marred by a domestic loon, but nary a foreign squabble. And no one considered boycotting Athens in 2004 despite worldwide opposition to the Iraq invasion. Rather, the Games are now about commercialism and international star power, in keeping with our globalizing, materialistic world. China's leaders have tried to co-opt this Olympics as a nationalist symbol—but by refusing to make a fuss, heads of state are sending a message that the rest of the planet won't play along.