The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games is just 62 days away, and across the Chinese capital clocks count the days. Among International Olympic Committee executives and members gathered in Athens this week they are counting the hours to a different landmark: "Everyone is counting the days to the opening ceremony," said one senior figure. "Me? I'm looking forward to reaching the closing ceremony on August 24 and getting on the plane home."
Publicly the IOC expresses complete confidence in China's preparations, but behind the optimism lie deep anxieties about the most politically-charged and culturally challenging games in Olympic history.
Many of the senior officials in Athens this week arrived direct from Beijing where they held a series of crisis talks with the authorities following the imposition of a huge security clampdown and a new level of government-led bureaucracy that threatens to disrupt the smooth running of the games.
As well as concerns over making the games work, there are genuine fears that athletes who choose to speak out against the Chinese regime, critical media and any individuals daring to protest publicly could prompt a huge backlash from the authorities and the general public.
At the heart of the IOC's concerns is the political fallout from events of the last three months. Riots in Lahsa, Tibet in March prompted a global wave of anti-Chinese protests which found a convenient focal point in the hapless Beijing Olympic torch relay. What Beijing hoped would be a triumph degenerated into a tawdry public relations fiasco that damaged both China and the IOC.
The response in Beijing has been dramatic. Shaken by events, the Chinese authorities have ordered a huge security clampdown on Olympic sites that threatened to disrupt basic games operations.
According to seasoned Sinophiles in the Olympic movement there has also been a tangible hardening of the public and official mood too. The attacks on the torch relay came as a genuine shock to many Chinese, who feel their country has been unfairly traduced. There is bemusement too at the actions of NGOs including Amnesty that have called on athletes to speak out against the Beijing government. The Chinese code of hospitality does not include insulting your host, and the reaction of the authorities and public to anyone who does criticise China is the great unknown of this Olympiad.
The collision of 20,000 journalists, 10,000 athletes and thousands of foreign spectators with the Chinese is causing acute unease within the IOC, and some influential figures fear that any backlash could be damaging to both the games and the Olympic movement.
Most sensitive is the issue of athletes speaking out. The IOC charter prohibits "propaganda and demonstrations", and the IOC has promised to apply "common sense" when assessing whether the line has been crossed by, for example, the wearing of a Free Tibet T-shirt or an inflammatory press-conference comment.
There are no such guarantees from the elaborate Chinese security apparatus, however, and the current mood in Beijing gives little cause of optimism that they will be indulgent of dissent.
There are technical fears, too. The Chinese central government has taken a tighter grip on the project in the wake of Lhasa, restricting the ability of the Beijing organising committee (Bocog), with which the IOC has worked for seven years, to take meaningful decisions.
New security arrangements have been imposed at many venues, and the IOC fear that the three-cordon procedure proposed by Beijing could prevent athletes, officials and media - the three categories prioritised by the IOC - from being able to smoothly attend venues.
Broadcasters already setting up operations in the city have also experienced difficulties, encountering restricted vehicle access to stadia and finding that permits for filming outside venues are currently taking 21 days to process. With the games lasting just 17 days, the drawbacks are obvious.
The IOC's task in trying to resolve some of these issues has been made harder by the introduction of a new level of bureaucracy, only revealed today. A two-tier command structure has been imposed, with central government officials leading the top tier and Bocog officials and the mayor dealing with day-to-day operations. With decisions usually having to be taken swiftly, the structure poses a major challenge to the smooth running of the games.
Hein Verbruggen, the chairman of the IOC coordination commission that has steered the Beijing games since 2001, acknowledges the challenge. "The biggest challenge that we face is bureaucracy," he said this week. "The Chinese way is to plan everything to the finest detail so there are a lot of procedures in place. But the hospitality and friendliness of the people will be spectacular, and I am absolutely certain the games will leave an incredible legacy for the country."
IOC president Jacques Rogge also expressed confidence that the games would proceed smoothly, and that security arrangements would not ultimately prove overbearing. "We have asked the Chinese to try and find the right balance between security and operations, and I have confidence that they will do so," he said today.
For all the outward confidence, it would be no surprise if Rogge was among those breathing a sigh of relief on August 25.
Doha rejection exposes weakness of the Olympics
When Rogge and his executive board gathered in Athens this week, they knew the agenda was likely to be dominated by the race to host the 2016 games.
What they may not have expected was that a contest likely to be dominated by marquee cities Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid would be swamped in controversy surrounding the ejection of a small Gulf state with more money than genuine prospects of success.
That is what happened however after Doha, the Qatari capital and the first middle-eastern city to bid to host the games, was thrown out of the race on Wednesday evening.
The decision may ultimately have proved correct - there are many reasons why you might consider the tiny desert state an inappropriate venue for the games, starting with the role of women and the treatment of migrant workers - but the cack-handed execution and the subsequent row reveals some deep-seated insecurities in the Olympic movement.
Officially Doha was junked from the race because its request to stage the games in October 2016, thus avoiding the searing summer temperatures of the IOC's preferred window between July 15 and August 31, was rejected.
According to bid insiders, Doha had been assured that the dates were no barrier to inclusion in the race, and proceeded with a bid that on technical merits was ranked above Rio and level with Chicago.
Rogge denies that the IOC misled the city, claiming that the decision was made with the interests of athletes in mind. Doha's expulsion still represented a wholesale rejection of the recommendations of the IOC's technical committee, setting a precedent the movement may come to regret.
In the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal that exposed corruption in the bidding process, Rogge oversaw a change in procedure that placed technical merit above the political and personal whims of IOC members. In Doha's case that approach appears to have been set aside, ironically to help prevent a return to the culture of graft that characterised old-school bidding.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rogge and the executive committee blocked Doha because they did not trust the full IOC membership to make the correct decision in an open vote. The IOC membership is capricious and unpredictable, and had Doha made it on to the short list the full weight of its petro-dollar fortune would have been unleashed on the membership. For an organisation desperate to remove the perception that its members' votes might be for sale, that could have been disastrous.
Perhaps more seriously for the long-term health of the games, the decision exposes the relative weakness of Olympic sport in the international market. An Olympics in October would pitch the games directly against the European football leagues and the NFL and major league baseball in the US. The IOC leadership know that with track-and-field at its lowest ebb, discredited by drug scandals and pushed to the margins as a consequence, the games would be crushed by a humiliating lack of interest.
Simply, the Olympic movement's only chance of sustaining interest and, crucially, broadcast revenue is to sit in a summer window that avoids competition. With the all-important TV negotiations for 2016 that will secure the IOC's medium-term future yet to begin, Rogge was not prepared to allow even the remotest prospect that broadcasters would be asked to pay billions for an autumn games in the desert.