BEIJING - Every morning these past several months, I was reminded that, for the first time in Olympic history, China is poised to win more medals than any other nation. Each time I walked down my stairs, in fact, I was reminded. It was in plain view, right on my wall. Not an exact medal count, but an unavoidable symbol.
Last fall, on an earlier visit to Beijing, I was greeted outside my hotel by a Chinese college student. Like most people I've met here, he was exceedingly gracious and friendly. He explained he was studying art and his professor urged his students to practice their English on tourists. So we walked and chatted. He pointed out nearby sites, showed me a tranquil park and I eagerly agreed to a visit when he mentioned his university's art studio was nearby.
A couple of hours later, I sat at lunch, skimming through a travel guide. At my side, carefully packaged, was one of the student's pieces, "Four Seasons," a pricey scenic painting of his serene village. At least that's what he told me.
In big, bold letters, the travel guide belatedly warned: Beware of scam artists posing as art students. The overpriced art was fake; the crafty scam was real. And ever since, the piece has hung in my stairwell - a reminder of my naivete, yes, but also the reason I'm certain the United States' dominance on the medal platforms is about to end.
This isn't to imply the Chinese are all grifters, liars or even struggling artists. But it's difficult to deny that in China, the truth often has two faces: what is said and what is real.
The day before I began supporting the Beijing arts, I sat in a shiny metallic building - it looked like something from The Jetsons - sharing tea with Olympic officials. They told me every way they could that the medal count was meaningless to China, that the United States was still too powerful athletically. They smiled as they spoke, which at the time was disarming, but in retrospect, distrustful.
Their Olympic modesty is but a single thread of an increasingly familiar theme. With China, there's the surface. A smile maybe. Unflappable humility perhaps. Traditions, customs and history. Kindness, civility and promises.
Though each might be sincere and accurate, each is also partnered - and in many cases compromised - by a larger truth.
Sure, it's an open market and capitalist economy. But it's still an authoritarian state with roots firmly planted in communism.
And yes, the man and woman on the street are remarkably helpful, but the nation's human-rights record makes it among the poorest global neighbors.
And for all of the talk of having an "open" Olympics, reporters have rolled into town and discovered anything but.
For starters, there are travel limitations and interview restrictions from Tiananmen to Tibet. The Wikipedia page for the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square is unavailable. Anything to do with freeing Tibet or the Falun Gong spiritual movement is also strictly off-limits online.
Two U.S. citizens were among a small group arrested yesterday for unfurling a banner supporting Tibet near the Bird's Nest stadium. And this week, the Chinese government decided Joey Cheek, an American speedskating gold medalist, could not enter the country. Cheek has been an outspoken critic of China's continued involvement and silent support in Darfur, and the Chinese embassy revoked his visa.
Walking around Beijing, if you can manage to see through the thick, milky haze of polluted air - don't worry, we're told the air is safe and conditions couldn't be better! - one barely takes two steps without bumping into an Olympic volunteer. They are all kind, they all offer help and they all walk with you a couple of steps before passing you off like the Olympic torch itself to another smiling volunteer.
On the surface, it's incredible courtesy. A layer deeper, it's another vehicle of control, guiding each visitor down a path with no room for detour.
"Nobody's really calculating how many medals we're going to win," an Olympic official told me. "We're more concerned about having all of the international athletes and visitors coming to Beijing and feeling at home. We're more concerned with where to take them for dinner, where to take them for a tour site visit or where to take them for shopping."
Shopping? Who exactly is buying that?
Not by accident, these Games were strategically designed to announce China's arrival on the world stage. By some twisted logic, connecting dots that are miles apart, the nation's success athletically is presumed to reflect its dominance politically and economically.
The United States has taken home more medals than any other nation at the past three Summer Games. Since China returned to Olympic competition 24 years ago, it has seen its medal total slowly rise, from 32 in 1984 to 63 in 2004.
The United States had 102 medals four years ago, a 39-medal advantage over China. We're all about to see just how quickly the Chinese have been able to close that gap.
In China, there always seems to be something on the surface covering up a buried truth. The officials contend the medal margin is too big, which is all I need to hear to think otherwise.
All the evidence I need, in fact, is back home, hanging right on my wall.