Most Americans think staging the Olympics in China was a good decision despite China's human rights abuses, Beijing's smog and threats of attacks by militants, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The Associated Press-Ipsos survey also found that while just over half of Americans root for the U.S. team to capture as many medals as possible, nearly as many would rather see great achievements no matter where the athletes come from. Gymnastics remains the most popular sport, though swimming has overtaken track and field as No. 2.
By 55 percent to 34 percent, respondents said the International Olympic Committee's selection of China was the right choice rather than a mistake, a sentiment expressed evenly across party and ideological lines. The poll was conducted during the games' early days, which went smoothly, although an American was stabbed to death at a tourist site in an incident apparently unrelated to the Olympics.
Beijing has been a controversial choice because of how the communist government treats minorities, dissenters and religious groups; its brutal handling of Tibetan freedom demonstrators; and its close relationship with Sudan, which has waged a savage war in Darfur. There were also worries about threatened attacks by an Islamic group seeking independence for Xinjiang province in western China and about the capital's haze, heat and humidity.
Among those supporting China's selection was David Pulsipher, an American history professor from Rexburg, Idaho.
"The more the Chinese become dependent on the rest of the world, the more the rest of the world has influence," said Pulsipher, 41, in a follow-up interview.
Others would have preferred shunning China, which before the games was the target of demonstrations around the globe as the Olympic torch journeyed to Beijing.
"I don't think we should legitimize their government, which oppresses people," said Donna DiMauro, 45, a homemaker from Vineland, N.J.
Even as Russia attacked its neighbor Georgia as the games began, 74 percent said the Olympic movement has been successful in its historic goal of making the world more peaceful through sports. That was similar to the number who said so in 2004, when the games were held in the less controversial Greece, and to the large majorities who have called the competitions good for international understanding in Gallup Polls since 1948.
Peace, steroids and smog
About four in 10 say they think Olympians' use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids is a major problem, with about the same number calling it a minor concern. For these games, the Olympic committee plans about 4,500 drug tests and is specifically testing suspected drug users. So far, more than 50 athletes are missing due to doping accusations.
Thirty-nine percent said they thought the smog was having a major effect on athletes' performances, while 43 percent saw a minor impact. Despite stark steps like shutting factories and removing 2 million vehicles from the streets, Beijing's pollution has been persistent, though rain Sunday cleared some of it.
None of that has stopped many Americans from rooting hard for their athletes. By 51 percent to 45 percent, more want the U.S. team to return with a huge haul of medals than are simply enjoying athletic accomplishments without keeping score by country.
That preference, though, is hardly uniform. Those focusing on American victories are likelier to be white, higher income, Republican and conservative, according to the AP-Ipsos poll. Those not primarily interested in the national race for medals have higher proportions of minorities, liberals, Democrats and independents.
"Of course you're going to root for the American team," said Pennie Doss, 54, a homemaker from Des Moines, Iowa. "If anybody said any different, they'd be lying."
Two-thirds said they were interested in this year's Olympics, almost identical to the number who said so about the Athens Games. Men and women expressed interest in virtually equal numbers.
Fans follow gymnastics, swimming closely
As was true in 2004, gymnastics was the sport people said they would follow most closely, with 30 percent saying so. But the sexes diverged: Forty-four percent of women and 13 percent of men said they would pay most attention to gymnastics.
Swimming rose to No. 2 this year, named by 22 percent. It switched places from 2004 with track and field, which 17 percent said they would watch closest.
Swimming was most interesting to more women than to men, and to nearly three times as many whites as minorities. Nearly twice as many minorities as whites named track as their No. 1 sport, and more men than women said the same.
About half say they have watched coverage of the games, with men the likelier viewers. Seven in 10 are mostly watching the coverage on NBC, which has the broadcast rights to the games.
Yet four in 10 are reading Olympics stories on the Internet, one in four watching video online and one in 20 watching video on cell phones.
The AP-Ipsos poll was conducted Aug. 7-11 and involved telephone interviews with 1,001 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.