China eyes Olympic glory through haze

The hardest part is yet to come for Beijing Olympic organisers, heading into 2008 with all plans in place but potential pitfalls aplenty in the run-up to the August games.

Traffic congestion, closely linked to air quality, food security, media freedom and human rights as well as boycott calls are issues likely to flare up again over the coming months.

The darkest cloud of all is the thick blanket of pollution that regularly shrouds Beijing, forcing some competitors to scale down preparations in China and potentially scaring off others from even making the trip.

Even so, the Beijing Olympic organising committee swings into 2008 with praise from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ringing in its ears and real confidence that it can meet every challenge to its stated goal of showing off a ”new Beijing, great Olympics”.

”I believe that we can overcome all difficulties, all risks, and run a very sound and successful Olympic Games next year,” Jiang Xiaoyu, the organising committee vice-president, said.

An array of stunning venues are being prepared on schedule and a parallel building boom triggered in part by the Olympics is transforming the city of 17-million people with new skyscrapers rising from some of the 10 000 construction sites.

About $40-billion is being pumped into new roads, railways, an airport terminal and other projects to upgrade the city and present a modern image of Beijing to the world for the event, viewed as modern China’s coming-out party.

But China’s Olympic ambitions go beyond upgrading the city as a symbol of the country’s development and status as a rising power.

The ruling Communist Party wants the Chinese people to change to match their new environment, shedding their rougher edges and showing the world a ”civilised society”.

But changing old habits is proving harder to achieve than building state-of-the-art stadiums, and many Beijingers seem to be shrugging off the propaganda and clinging to their old habits of spitting, littering and queue jumping as the clock ticks down to the opening ceremony on August 8.

Posing a more serious danger to the games themselves rather than to Beijing’s image is poor air quality.

Beijing has spent about $12-billion since 2001 on an environmental clean-up but a United Nations report issued in October found that the city would fail to resolve poor air quality in time for the event.

Beijing plans to adopt ”contingency” measures including pulling about one million of the city’s three million cars off the roads.

A similar plan carried out for four days in August did cut pollution, according to Chinese officials.

But that may not be enough. And to the horror of the Chinese, IOC head Jacques Rogge has insisted that some distance events at the games could be postponed if pollution is too severe.

”If they really have to abandon some races or athletes collapse, this is really going to be very serious in terms of reputation,” said Brian Bridges, an Asian specialist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who researches links between sport and politics.

He said Beijing appeared to have weathered criticism of its human rights record and to have survived boycott calls and a campaign to label the Olympics the ”Genocide Games” by activists critical of China’s policies in Sudan.

But pollution is a different matter and decisions by the Australian Olympic teams and Britain’s swimmers to delay their arrival in Beijing are worrying for the Olympic organisers, he said.

Women’s Olympic champion Justine Henin, an asthmatic who pulled out of the China Open in September because of pollution fears, may not defend her Olympic tennis title in 2008 for the same reason.

”When you start to get a few more stories like that, then I think this pollution issue could be potentially much more damaging for China than anything else,” said Bridges. – Sapa-AFP

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