BEIJING - Wedged between a rice paddy and the city's eight-lane beltway stands a giant billboard with an artist's rendering of Beijing's Olympic Park. In the center is an 80,000-seat soccer stadium flanked by a sleek, gunmetal-gray gymnasium and a swimming center bathed in glass.
In the sign's bottom right corner, almost as an afterthought, is a small reminder that the complex may never be built. "Beijing 2008," it reads. "Candidate City."
Today, in Moscow, Beijing finally meets its fate. After months of speculation and debate, the International Olympic Committee will choose the site for the 2008 Summer Games. Among the five competitors, which include Paris, Toronto, Osaka, Japan, and Istanbul, Turkey, Beijing is widely thought to be the favorite.
If Beijing wins, it will mark a major victory for the world's most populous nation in its long struggle for respect. If the city loses, some Chinese are certain to see it as an insult and blame the United States - China's main rival and toughest critic on the international political stage.
"Winning the bid will help improve China's status in the world," says Wu Chaoren, 64, a retired mechanic who lives in an old Chinese courtyard home a short walk from Tiananmen Square. "If China doesn't win, the United States must have obstructed."
Many, though, are betting on China because it is home to one-fifth of the world's population, has never played host to the Olympics and lost out on the 2000 Games to Sydney by just two votes.
Among Beijing's two closest competitors, France held the games in 1900 and 1924, while Canada played host in 1976 and 1988.
A victory for China today would ensure that Beijing's preparations over the next seven years will be among the most scrutinized in modern Olympic history. Not since Moscow was host to the widely boycotted 1980 Summer Games would such a controversial, high-profile government oversee the world's premier sporting event.
Two major questions loom over a Beijing Olympics. Can this crowded city of 13 million with notorious air pollution and free-for-all traffic successfully play host to the international community over 16 days?
And would the Olympics help legitimize an often thuggish regime or pressure China's authoritarian leaders to improve their poor human rights record?
In an attempt to answer the first question, Beijing has pledged to do everything possible to succeed in 2008. The city plans to spend billions of dollars on roads, subways, grass, stadiums and environmental protection. Officials say the current 34 miles of subway lines will more than double, to nearly 88 miles, with a branch stretching to the new airport, which opened in 1999. By 2007, Beijing promises, 90 percent of its buses and 70 percent of its taxis will run on clean fuel.
Behind the blizzard of official numbers, there is cause for hope.
The city's new beltway, which runs just south of the site of Olympic Park, has cut hourlong cross-town commutes in half. Though smog has often shrouded Beijing's skyline this summer, pollution seems to have generally improved in recent years, with reductions in sulfur dioxide levels and stars occasionally dotting the night sky.
But the city has a long way to go. Seven years from now, traffic jams and wheezing athletes could turn an Olympic coming-out party into a national loss of face.
The question of the political impact of a Beijing Olympics is more difficult to assess. Some say that granting China the 2008 Games would have the effect here that the 1936 Games had in Berlin, where propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels produced a Nazi pageant that emboldened the Third Reich.
"The 1936 Olympics were exploited to maximum effect by Hitler, who put on a dazzling show designed to fool other countries into believing that Nazi Germany was a model world citizen," Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, wrote last week in an op-ed piece urging the IOC to reject Beijing's bid. "A vote by the delegates in favor of Beijing would abrogate ... critical IOC responsibilities by allowing a brutal authoritarian regime to bask in the reflected glory of the Olympics."
Pointing to repression of Tibet and the spiritual group Falun Gong, the European Parliament came out against the bid this month. The House of Representatives opposed Beijing's 2000 bid, but the White House and Congress have remained officially neutral on 2008.
Others point to the Seoul Olympics of 1988, when international scrutiny put pressure on South Korea's military regime and contributed to the country's shift from dictatorship to democratic rule.
A closer look, though, suggests that neither case is analogous to that of China today, let alone seven years from now.
Although the government maintains strict political control and continues to jail and sometimes kill its critics, China has also become an increasingly pluralistic place where many people are freer to live, work and travel where they want than ever before.