Since the end of the Cold War, the significance of the Olympic Games as a vehicle for inter-state diplomacy has lessened, while greater emphasis has been placed upon the “legacy” of the games for the host city and country. To a degree unprecedented in the Olympic context, human rights advocacy groups utilized the Beijing 2008 Olympics as a platform to exert pressure upon the Chinese government to improve its human rights record. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing in 2007-2008, interviews, and organizational analysis, this paper examines the relationships among the International Olympic Committee, Beijing organizing committee, Chinese government, human rights groups, and other actors, to provide an empirically-based answer to the question of whether the Olympic Games have the potential to contribute to a better world. It argues that attempts to answer the question have failed to identify the concrete organizational structures and event management strategies that would be necessary for the Olympic Games to fulfill the potential for positive social impact that is claimed for them. Academics have a responsibility to promote a more accurate understanding of the Olympic phenomenon in all its complexity.