Imagine tanks rumbling down Dawn Fraser Avenue in the Olympic precinct at Homebush.

The idea is offensive to the way we think about sport and the Olympics. Sport for us at this level is a celebration of the inextinguishable human spirit and an affirmation of the liberty we enjoy as a birthright.

But China is a totalitarian state with a very nervous leadership and they are deeply suspicious of uncontrolled celebrations of the inextinguishable human spirit. People might be swept up in it all and start getting ambitious for more freedom than the regime is willing to allow them.

In fact, totalitarian regimes don’t have a good track record with hosting the Olympic Games. A clever blogger recently pointed out that Nazi Germany was extinguished nine years after the 1936 games in Berlin and the Soviet Union collapsed nine years after the 1980.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has studied the downfall of similar regimes, particularly the USSR, and has identified “bureaucratic ossification” as the big problem. They are making conscious, albeit hesitant, efforts to re-invigorate their system.

It’s not easy to throw the switch from brutal guard to egalitarian bonhomie. The Beijing Games are now becoming a poignant illustration of just how hard it is to transform an authoritarian regime into something more familiar to the Western world.

The CCP has a clear sense of what a successful Olympics should look like and they have gone to extraordinary lengths to deliver a spectacular opening ceremony, even dodging up bits of it (fireworks, singers), and unsurpassed venues and technology.

Unfortunately, the comrades just can’t grasp the “share the spirit” idea that made Sydney (and other olympiads) so much fun for all involved. The spirit this year looks more like Orwell’s boot grinding the face of humanity than the great celebration of what it means to be human that we inherited from the ancient Greeks.

Consequently, much of the imagery flooding the world through saturation television and internet coverage is not delivering the “we’ve arrived” message that the CCP had anticipated so eagerly.

Instead, the ominous tanks, the internet censorship, half empty venues, official solemnity, absence of “live” party sites and so on are just highlighting the fact that despite the dramatic economic growth in China since 1978, the world’s largest country still lags well behind when it comes to political and social development.

These sobering images are going to put some doubts in the minds of Western observers who cling to the soothing notion that China’s economic success will result in an eventual transition, possibly smooth, to something recognisably democratic.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must be gritting its teeth and looking forward to 2012. The Olympics brand is all about exuberance and celebration. That brand has been taking hits throughout the year with the highly embarrassing torch relay. They must see London, one of the world’s freest cities, as a lifeline for the Olympics movement.

If you’re superstitious (and the Chinese famously are) you’d be marking off 2017 as a year to look out for.