SOMETIMES THE Olympic Games serve as the ultimate travelogue, sending millions back to their homes around the world with stories that inspire travel. Barcelona. Sydney. Athens. Beautiful, inviting places.

Occasionally, though, they are less about a place in space as they are a place in time. The Tokyo Olympics in 1964 underlined Japan's huge sea change from military menace to blossoming economic power. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 triggered the permanent democratization of South Korea. Moscow in 1980. Berlin in 1936, Helsinki in 1952. They are remembered much less for who won what than they are for the tense climate of the time.

But they are remembered because they were chronicled.

There is a sentiment out there, spurred I suppose by the activist journalism that now rules our day, that reporters should boycott covering the Olympics in Beijing, should refuse to chronicle it the way Steven Spielberg refused to produce its opening ceremonies. A government that allegedly tortures its dissident citizens, that allies with brutal regimes in Burma and Sudan, that has shunned environmental concerns as its economy explodes should itself be shunned.

Or so goes the thought.

I don't get it.

To me, those very elements make this Olympics the most compelling I expect to cover, "must-see" journalism to use the vernacular of the medium that now rules the day. It's why we do what we do.

How well China's authoritarian government cleans up its environmental act, how much it bends when it comes to its political alliances and philosophies, how much is real, how much is fake - it's the game that envelopes these games, really.

China has reportedly spent $40 billion on infrastructure and another $17 billion cleaning up the effects of an economy that has been growing, unfettered by environmental constraints, by 9 percent annually. Trees have been planted along roads, a new airport built, an opening ceremony planned that is intended to celebrate the country's rich historic past and herald its re-emergence as a world power.

To do that, it must convince the estimated 21,600 journalists who will cover these games that it is a well-intentioned entity and not the authoritarian monster of citizen-crushing tanks and immoral business alliances. Already Mia Farrow, actress and Darfur activist, has called these the "Genocide Olympics," a reference to China's trade and aid to the brutal Khartoum regime in Sudan. Prince Charles' decision to not attend the opening ceremonies is believed to be a protest of the government's handling of Tibet. The Olympic flame had to be rerouted and relit to avoid protests in Paris and San Francisco. And various human-rights groups, not to mention the exploding international blogging community, have called for disruptions at the Games if China's communist government doesn't become, well, nicer.

Such pressure has already threatened the very things China wanted most from these Olympics: Credibility among its people, credibility from the world it seeks to sell its goods and services to. Their response so far - besides beefing up security around Beijing's perimeter and killing off five Islamic extremists the other day - has been viewed as promising by some and window dressing by others.

Ever so slightly, it applied some pressure on the Khartoum regime to accept a 26,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force there, even contributing a 315-member unit of mostly construction workers and medical personnel. Sales of arms to Burma's military junta receded after last September's bloody crackdown of dissidents, and China took a more prominent role in U.N. attempts to reel them in, even reversing its opposition to a resolution condemning the violence.

All this traces to the Olympics. China had been firmly amoral, maybe even immoral, in its business dealings before the Games drew all this attention. Even its internal policies, albeit still forged in steel, have been tinkered with as the Games draw near. Restrictions on foreign journalists have eased. Dissidents and political prisoners have been released. When the human-rights group Play Fair found that an official merchandiser employed children, China announced proudly and publicly that it had shut down the factory and revoked its Olympic license.

Window dressing? Maybe, probably. But as Seoul proved in 1988, it isn't necessarily a slam dunk. Korea is a much different place 20 years later, and it is universally agreed that the Olympics played a part in that.

Maybe something like that happens in China after these Games. Maybe it doesn't. Either way, it's a story with legs, a story that will be a milepost 20 years from now.

If you get a chance to tell it, I can't for the life of me understand why you wouldn't.

Or shouldn't. *

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