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Leading article: Enjoy the Olympics, and hope

The world's biggest festival of sport, the Olympic Games, begins next Friday in Beijing. We shall, at least, have no trouble remembering when it starts – at 8.08pm on 08/08/08. As our report today points out, the sheer scale of the Games has never been greater. The Olympic statistics baffle the imagination – 10,708 athletes from 205 countries will participate in 28 sports and 302 events. There are 24 new venues for the Games – some of them remarkable pieces of modernist architecture – which involved more than a million workers. The cost came to £19.7bn, plus security – not a precedent that London should wish to follow for the Games in 2012.

It will, of course, be a wonderful spectacle which will unite a global audience of hundreds of millions of people in a way nothing else can. People in every nation on Earth will be spectators – certainly tens of millions of Britons will be watching and cheering on our athletes, such as Tom Daley and our equestrian and yachting teams.

This is China's moment, and, tellingly, China seems likely to underpin its status as the major economic power of the 21st century by winning more medals at these Games than anyone else – including the US. China is, overwhelmingly, proud of the Beijing Olympics, which confirm its new standing in the world.

But the point of the Olympics is not simply to be bigger, grander, more expensive than the ones before. The Olympic ideals are lofty – they mark the moral aspirations as well as the sporting ambitions of the international community. The Games are meant to be a force for good – and they can be. In contemporary terms, they are a means to foster international good will, to be an agent for environmental progress, for encouraging human rights. It would be to ignore reality – as we point out below – to suggest that this has been the outcome to date. But it is still important that the Olympics have, at least, raised awareness of China's failings. And if athletes mount the victors' podium with T-shirts drawing attention to the problems, we should cheer them on.

Indeed, while many people in China were indignant that the journey of the Olympic flame around the world was used by Western activists to demonstrate against the Chinese record in Tibet, the demonstrations did raise global consciousness of the plight of the Tibetans. Undoubtedly, the actions of individuals such as Steven Spielberg in refusing to participate in the Games prompted China to justify its policy on Darfur.

When the Games get under way, there will be countless opportunities for the global leaders present to make courteously clear to their hosts their disquiet about China's foreign-policy failures concerning Sudan and Burma, about the repression in Tibet, about the plight of Chinese Christians and other minorities, and the treatment of human-rights activists. They need look no further than the Amnesty International report last week on China's record. Every European head of government present should express concern about the conviction last year for "inciting subversion" of a human-rights activist, Hu Jia, after he had told a European Union parliamentary hearing that China had not lived up to the promises it had made to the Olympic authorities on human rights.

There were real hopes that these would be the first "green" Games – and those hopes have not been realised. The pollution in Beijing not only raises concerns for the athletes breathing this particulate-heavy atmosphere; it ought to make us concerned for the unfortunate citizens who breathe it every day. It may be that the authorities can, by banning even greater numbers of vehicles from Beijing during the Games, and closing more smog-producing factories, clean the air – if they do not, the outcome of the Games will be seen to be compromised. And, remember, hundreds of thousands of peoples' homes were arbitrarily destroyed to make way for the Olympic site.

Journalists have also complained about restrictions on foreign press seeking access to various internet sites – a small instance of more general government interference in web access. For all that, the liberties of citizens in China are unimaginably better than they once were. Nonetheless, the Tiananmen Square massacre, 19 years ago, casts a long shadow.

As for the Games, it is important that individual achievements are not compromised by drug taking – already the American relay team has been disqualified. The Olympics is not a contest between rival pharmaceutical companies: the draconian action taken, for instance, against Dwain Chambers will be justified if it means other athletes stay clean.

But for all the problems and the disappointments about unrealised aspirations, the Beijing Games will still be the greatest show on Earth, 17 days of bliss for sports lovers and a compelling spectacle for everyone else. We wish it well.