Can nations put aside their political positions and compete as equals?
Under the Olympic ideal, the Games are a time when political differences are set aside as humanity tries to better itself through noble competition.
In reality, the turbulent world of international relations has always defined them.
From the Nazi Olympics in 1936 to the Cold War boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles, many great political moments have dominated the Games.
But Athens 2004 may be shaping up to be closer to the Olympic dream.
More than 20 athletes are here from post-Saddam Iraq.
The first Afghan woman will compete - in tracksuit and headscarf - since the fall of the Taleban.
North and South Korea, still technically at war, will march together in the opening ceremony.
Dr Tiras Odishow, a senior official in Iraq's Olympic team, told BBC News Online: "This is my third Olympics but it is almost like our first.
"For the first time we have a team that is coming to the Olympics because they are the best in their country and who can compete fairly, without fear."
WHEN THE GAMES TURNED POLITICAL
1936 Berlin: Jesse Owens triumphs over Hitler
1948 London: Japan, Germany and Russia barred from post-war Olympics
1952 Helsinki: Eastern bloc refuses to share Olympic Village
1956 Melbourne: Suez crisis and Soviet invasion of Hungary overshadow Games
1964 Tokyo: Apartheid South Africa not invited
1968 Mexico: Students massacred 10 days before Olympics
1972 Munich: Palestinian militants kill 11 Israeli athletes and a policeman
1976 Montreal: 22 African nations boycott over apartheid
1980 Moscow: US, West Germany and Japan boycott
1984 Los Angeles: Soviet team refuses to compete
Greece has appealed for countries to respect the Olympic truce - a peace tradition from the ancient Games, revived in 1992.
At that time it helped allow athletes from the former Yugoslav republics to join the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
But the cracks are starting to appear.
Taiwan has already accused China of mixing politics with sport after being told to remove adverts for the island from hundreds of airport baggage carts and buses in Athens.
Its athletes take part under the team name of Chinese Taipei, and its national flag and anthem cannot be used when they win medals.
China, the host of the 2008 Olympics, has a history of combining sport and politics - notably with the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s.
But there were worrying signs for the hosts of the 2008 Olympics at the weekend when Chinese football fans rioted in Beijing after Japan won the Asian Cup final.
At the match, the Japanese national anthem was drowned out by jeers.
Many Chinese feel Japan has not atoned for its brutal occupation in the 1930s and aggression during World War II.
Meanwhile, US team managers have been urging athletes to be on their best behaviour during the Games, to avoid bringing any political disagreement with the United States into the Olympic arena.
They want to avoid the type of celebrations that saw the US 4x100m relay team mark their victory in Sydney by prancing around the track, flexing their muscles while draped in the US flag.
Amid celebrations of "free Iraq's" return to the fold, there was a stark reminder that the Olympic Truce is largely symbolic when Iraq's Olympic chief Ahmed al-Samarrai narrowly survived an assassination attempt.
World leaders are already arriving in Athens ahead of Friday's opening ceremony.
British officials say Prime Minister Tony Blair will be "flying the flag" for the country's 2012 Olympic bid.
Most countries are certainly talking the Olympic language.
Marwan Abdelhamid, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's representative in Athens, told a news conference that no true Arab or Muslim would carry out any violence at the Games.
"We... declare that any possible action against the Athens Olympics, by anyone invoking the name of Palestine will be considered by the whole of the Palestinian people as an action against Palestine itself," he said.
One of the worst incidents in the modern Olympics came in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian militants.
As hosts, the Athens organising committee is suitably upbeat.
Spokesperson Pierre Kosmidis said: "The Olympics are about what brings people from different places together - they are the biggest manifestation of peace and noble competition in the world."
Former Olympic champion Pal Schmitt, an MEP and head Hungary's Olympic Committee, set the tone in a speech to the European Parliament last month, urging nations to respect the truce.
"When the Palestine and Israeli athletes have their contest and shake hands like friends afterwards or the Iraqi and US athletes compete against each other like true sportsmen... I am convinced that the Olympic Games will continue to be the important symbol of peace in this new century as well."