You know the Olympics are near when the usual gang of juiced-up Bulgarian weightlifters gets tossed from the Games before even learning how to say in Chinese, "These needles are for therapeutic use only."

The traditional ousting of Bulgarians got under way early for this Olympics after 11 of them tested positive for steroids last month, prompting the country's weightlifting federation to throw in the towel and finally admit the jig was up.

The host country was tidying up its ranks, too, banning a top swimmer and wrestler who were also juiced. Just to show they meant business, the Chinese athletes were banned for life.

The only good news for Luo Meng and Ouyang Kunpeng was that it didn't happen during the Games. It's bad enough that those pesky foreigners keep trying to embarrass China, but Chinese athletes might get a one-way trip to some remote outpost testing positive when the world athletic spotlight is shining on their country.

It will shine brightly, too, beginning a month from now when thousands of athletes, coaches and hangers-on are joined by even more thousands of journalists, cameramen and hangers-on for 16 days of fun, games and total excess that only the Summer Olympics can provide.

The official start will be on the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth year of the century, a date picked by the Chinese because it is lucky. Just a few months ago there didn't seem anything lucky about these Games, but China seems to have regrouped in the wake of a devastating earthquake that took people's minds off the country's troubling issues elsewhere.

Protests that threatened to overwhelm the Olympic torch parade disappeared about the same time the torch entered China, while even the more politically active athletes have mostly kept quiet about human rights issues in recent months. Meanwhile, the bloody crackdown in Tibet is yesterday's news, and Darfur activists are having the same trouble they always have in explaining where the region is and why China is to blame for its current woes.

President Bush gave his seal of approval to the Games the other day by saying he would be attending the opening ceremony, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has reportedly changed his mind and will also be on hand. The Dalai Lama himself says he supports the Games, though that may be because the Chinese have threatened to cut off talks with representatives of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader if he does anything to dishonor their Olympics.

China is ready to stage the most elaborate Games, and it has left little to chance in a coming out party worthy of a superpower. The opening ceremony will surely dazzle, buses will run on time and there is about as much chance of Sweden winning the medal count as there is of a television camera catching any protester within a mile of Tiananmen Square.

Yes, the air will be polluted and sailors may have to deal with huge clumps of algae in the water. There's also a good chance the gymnastics results will perplex millions, though that's almost as much an Olympics rite as the expulsion of Bulgarian weightlifters.

What you won't see is much muddling up these games that the Chinese can control. And, like most totalitarian governments, they've had a lot of experience at controlling things within their own borders.

China says it has mobilized a 100,000-strong anti-terrorism force to protect the Olympics and organized another 440,000 security guards and volunteers to keep an eye on things. Police have begun patrolling the airport with machine guns, and surface-to-air missiles have been installed near Olympic venues.

Everyone who comes into the country will be monitored, and dissidents and underground religious followers in other parts of China have either been jailed or banned from leaving their cities during the Games to prevent them from staging protests in Beijing.

True believers in Olympic ideals will argue that the Games will help change things like that by opening up China to democracy. The more cynical will counter that nothing will change and that Beijing should never have gotten the Games in the first place, winning them only because the IOC was wowed by China's potential for buying all things adidas and Nike.

Whatever the case, they're almost here and the world will soon be treated to an Olympics contested for the most part in beautifully designed facilities that will look spectacular on high definition television. And, if performances so far this year are any indication, the competition will be outstanding.

Michael Phelps could become the greatest medal winner ever, the home team could win more golds than anyone and even the smallest countries will have chances for glory.

As in any Olympics, athletes you've never heard of in sports you wouldn't otherwise ever watch could become surprise stars.

The one thing that won't be a surprise is that the first Olympics on Chinese soil is going to be played out on China's terms.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. His e-mail is tdahlbergap.org