Houston Community News >> 2008 Beijing Olympics Poised to be Greatest Games of All

8/3/2007 BEIJING- Still a year away, the Beijing Olympics are poised to be the grandest Games of all. This has been called “China’s Century,” and the games will reflect the country’s lofty ambitions when they open on August 8, 2008 – a watershed of sports, politics and theatre set on a stage designed by China’s communist government.

“This is not a simple sports event at all,” said Tu Mingde, a vice president of the Chinese Olympic Committee and a key member of the winning bid committee. “Its meaning surpasses the importance of sports itself.” Nothing shows the striving better than the 91,000-seat National Stadium, the striking centerpiece that rises abruptly above the ancient capital. Known as the “Bird’s Nest,” it’s a mammoth mass of twisted steel girders, a radical design that melds tons of sharp edges – resembling silver twigs – into a smooth bowl that soars 300 feet above the spread of the Olympic Green below.

China has longed for this spotlight, and it’s holding nothing back. The capital is spending $40 billion to remake its subways, roads and image, and Olympic venues are only a small part. Centuries-old courtyards with tiny dragon figurines perched on curved eaves have been razed, replaced by hundreds of hovering cranes and glass towers. And everyone is clamoring to take part. The volunteer staff numbers 550,000, one for every expected foreign visitor, and a world TV audience of 4 billion is predicted.

Even the torch relay is super-sized – 22,000 torchbearers will travel 136,500 kilometers (85,000 miles) across five continents, including the summit of Mount Everest. A year out, at least one verdict is in. “I am sure that the Olympic Games in Beijing will be the best in Olympic history,” former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch said in a recent visit. With immense expectations come tremendous risks. China-born historian Xu Guoqi says the Games present “weiji” to the Chinese government. In English, the word means “crisis” and consists of two Chinese characters _ “wei” for danger and “ji” for opportunity.

“There are many hidden dangers for the government,” said Xu, who teaches at Kalamazoo College in the United States. “The foreign journalists with their free access to China during the Games may reveal to the world ... many dark sides of China.” “When both national honour and the party’s legitimacy gets involved, of course, Beijing will do anything and everything to make its Games stand out.” Nothing seems beyond the government’s control – not even the weather. Meteorologists began tests last month, firing rockets to disperse rain clouds – a move to guarantee sunshine at the Olympics. They’ve also fired rockets to induce rain to clean Beijing’s humidity and dirty air.

Several of the city’s 12 new venues are finished and, except for the Bird’s Nest, they’ll all be done by the end of the year. All venues would have been completed a year ago, but the IOC asked builders to slow down. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who earn about $130 monthly, have rebuilt Beijing, with 50,000 alone reported to have worked on the new airport. “When you have such a large population you can do things on a larger scale,” said Susan E. Brownell, a China sports expert at the United States’ University of Missouri-St Louis. China has waited almost 100 years for these Games, and officials are betting visitors and the expected 22,000 journalists – operating under relaxed reporting rules – will rave about the hospitality, efficiency and the fresh face of Beijing, which is changing so quickly that maps are obsolete in months.

Old habits also are being demolished. Etiquette campaigns are afoot to stamp out bad manners like jumping ahead in line, spitting, littering and reckless driving. The 11th of each month is queue-up day, a firm nudge to be polite. Beijing’s city government is fining litters and spitters up to $6.50. Cab drivers are under pressure to learn some English, stop sleeping in their taxis and brush away the garlic – a key ingredient in Chinese cooking. A program called “Crazy English” draws 10,000 to gung-ho assemblies, where Olympic volunteers are whipped into shape.

“Chinglish” – the unintelligible English that abounds on billboards, menus and storefronts – is also out. Bad grammar and faulty syntax might amuse native speakers but not Beijing Olympic officials. “Everybody should cultivate good habits from now on,” said Liu Qi, the president of the organizing committee and Beijing’s top Communist Party official. “Everybody should follow and protect public order, no matter if you are driving or walking. Clean words, clean environment and clean air.” That could be tough.

Beijing chafes under choking pollution and snarled traffic. But the city will ban at least one third of 3.3 million vehicles during the 17-day Olympics and close dust-spewing building sites and sooty factories. Billions already have been spent moving industry out of town. Even so, it will require an adjustment, especially for the athletes. “You need a certain amount of time in hot, humid conditions to acclimatize,” said Lynne Coleman, who leads New Zealand’s Olympic medical team. “What you can’t acclimatize for is pollution, and I think that’s the athletes’ number 1 concern with Beijing.”

Positive drug tests also could soil the Games – particularly if the athletes are Chinese. A series of doping scandals in the 1990s tarnished China’s reputation, and, for some, the country is still suspect. China won only two medals – neither gold – at this year’s swimming World Championships. This prompted charges that top athletes are being hidden, a suspicion called “ridiculous” by Zhao Jian, head of the Chinese Olympic Committee anti-doping commission. “What we want most is a clean games next year, where athletes from all over the world feel that they are competing fair and square,” Zhao said. “We won’t hesitate in cracking down on drug cheats among Chinese athletes.”

Many pick China to dislodge the United States as the number 1 gold-medal winner, which would leave another indelible mark on the games. “I think it’s going to be a very difficult to follow their act,” said Steven Roush, chief of sport performance for the US Olympic Committee. “I think the bar has been set pretty high when it comes to the quality of the venues. This is going to draw an audience that has typically not been attracted to the Olympics.” Beijing has 60 sponsors and suppliers, almost 50 percent more than Athens in 2004. There are three “official” beers, not just one, and Adidas is widely reported to have paid $100 million for its sponsorship.

Gerhard Heiberg of Norway, who leads the IOC’s marketing commission, said more than $1 billion has been paid locally for the rights to the lucrative five-ring emblem. And like any Olympics, there are security concerns. Though they, too, are unique. Many revolve around keeping protesters from using the stage to air grievances against China’s communist government. Security preparations have been kept quiet, but state media says Beijing has allocated $300 million for security – only 20 percent of the spending in Athens. In recent weeks, the government has released details about police readiness drills, hostage situations and handling dirty bombs. The biggest threat might be foreigners hoping to highlight causes like labor rights or China’s role in the Darfur crisis. Other problems could center on domestic groups like Tibetans who seek autonomy, or Taiwan activists who want formal independence for the island.

Taiwan embarrassed Beijing in April when it backed out of the torch relay. It argues the proposed route implies the breakaway island is part of China. The IOC treads lightly on any political controversy. “The way in which the games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is regrettable,” said IOC member Hein Verbruggen, who leads the group overseeing Beijing preparations. He’s called the games “a force for good,” but suggested that shoddy treatment of activist groups could threaten the reputation of the Beijing Games.

(Contributed by AP)