Associated Press

BEIJING — The stadiums were stunning. The buses ran with German precision.

The air, if not pristine, proved mostly breathable. The Olympic Green was a triumph of design.

The plentiful volunteers never stopped smiling. The military gate guards never stopped standing at attention.

At some point, however, in the Olympic Games of Beijing, we all had the same thought, that moment of clarity where we realized that it was all too good to be true.

Admittedly, $43 billion will buy you a lot of Olympics. By contrast, the Greek government's Olympic budget four years ago in Athens was $8 billion.

Little, if anything, in other words, was spared in the making of this Olympics.

Take Sunday, for example, and the closing ceremony. When the Olympic flag and those of Greece, Great Britain and China were raised, they rippled smartly in the night's breeze.

Except there was no breeze at the Bird's Nest national stadium, where the air on most nights was compared to the inside of a coffin.

To make the flags stand like the soldiers at attention, Chinese organizers used flagpoles with fans installed in the tops.

That, in itself, doesn't make an Olympic host evil. But there were enough little things like that during these Beijing Games — the lip-synching little girl, the lack of protesters, Joey Cheek's denied visa, the brazen Internet censorship — that it began to smell like a pattern.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, there is always going to be ample manpower to assign to any problem. In a nation where policy is dictated by a sovereign ruling class, the rulers are always going to decide what's best for the people.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the International Olympic Committee would one day award the Games to the world's most populous nation. The IOC has always fancied itself as a peace broker. Its naivete is that when it has awarded the Olympics to what it felt were deserving nations, it has failed to consider the validation that it might bestow on the nation's rulers.

The 1936 Berlin Games, for example, gave a global stage to a murderous dictator.

Modern China's record on human rights caused immediate howls when the IOC awarded the Games in 2001. But as journalists who peered under the Chinese rug saw these past three weeks, China's restrictions on freedom go far beyond Tibet and Darfur.

Capitalism abounds in breathtaking, neon fashion in modern Beijing. Add $43 billion of Olympic flora and fauna, and you had a veritable Disneyland, created to impress.

By the second week of the Games, the uniformed members of the People's Liberation Army of China were even smiling and answering questions for the Olympic guests. The Chinese organizers' final facade, as it turned out, was to put a benign human face on its unique brand of communism.

China seems to work, because China has been taught to obey. Those in control, we learned, are very much in control.

As the preeminent athlete at this Olympics, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps had a bully pulpit to speak out on Darfur or censorship or the simple appalling lack of unfettered churches in this country. But none of the athletes said anything, did anything, that would have embarrassed the hosts. And the winter athlete who would have, Cheek, had his visa denied with barely a peep of objection from the USOC and IOC.

The Games themselves were enthralling. Memories abound, from Phelps to Usain Bolt to Nastia Liukin and all who raised cheers at the gleaming new venues.

Most of the time, those cheers were Chinese spectators, cheering for Chinese athletes. The host nation won 51 gold medals at these Games.

But the United States won a remarkable 110 medals here, all relay problems notwithstanding. And its pledge to send a drug-free team to the Olympics proved true.

At least, that's what the hosts said.

We'll never know, as it turns out. We may never know a lot of things that happened behind the impressive facade of these Beijing Games.

Late one night, coming home from the boxing venue, I stumbled across an early morning work crew. They were migrant workers, planting bushes and flowers alongside the road, supervised by a small cadre of military. When I tried to take a picture, one of the soldiers rushed at me, sternly waving no.

After years of isolation, three weeks in the eighth month of 2008 are not going to change China's ways.

The global perception, however, may be otherwise. Many elected not to peer behind the facade. They will hail the "new China."

On the surface, the Games of Beijing were sensational in so many ways.

But no, there's no new China. Hopefully, the IOC will one day realize that.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.