Optimism floods back to Beijing ahead of Games

Optimism is flooding back to Beijing two months before the Olympics, with organisers eyeing success despite fears over pollution, security and the potential for more PR blunders.

Preparations are all but over and after a period of gloom, Games organisers can point to several bright spots — tickets are sold out and the cutting-edge venues for the August 8 to 24 extravaganza are unrivalled.

Each of the 37 sites has been put through a trial by fire in four dozen test events, including a full track and field Olympic dress rehearsal for the main National Stadium last month.

”The athletes of the world will be excited out of their minds when they come here in August,” Australia’s senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Kevan Gosper said.

Much has changed since IOC chief Jacques Rogge said on April 7 in Beijing that the Olympics were in crisis.

He was not referring to Beijing’s pollution — poor air quality will remain a major issue and Rogge has said events could be put off because of it. Instead, his carefully chosen language described the unexpected ferocity of attacks on the Olympic torch relay in Europe and the United States in April and the threat of the first Games boycott in more than two decades.

Speaking two months later at the end of an IOC board meeting in Athens on June 6, Rogge said that his bleak characterisation no longer held true.

”At that time there were calls for an international general boycott. There were violent protests against the Olympic torch and we didn’t know how the international situation would be resolved,” he said.

”Obviously the threat of an international boycott has disappeared and I am seeing we are in a totally different situation … I am very optimistic for the quality of the Games and I believe these will be very good Games.”

China’s worst natural disaster in a generation, the massive earthquake on May 12 that killed about 70 000 people in the south-west of the country, played a part in changing the climate ahead of the Olympics.

China’s response to the quake, speedily mobilising a massive relief effort and inviting foreign countries to take part, earned international praise and the disaster triggered an outpouring of sympathy from overseas.

At the same time, nationalist anger building up in China over foreign criticism of the country linked to the torch relay also melted away and anti-foreign attacks in the state-controlled media evaporated.

”It is not my intention to say that there was anything good in a tragedy, but it had a benign effect on the situation,” said Gosper.

Before the earthquake, the Olympics were turning into a public relations nightmare. China’s leaders viewed the Games as an ideal platform to trumpet the country’s ”peaceful rise” as a world power.

They spent more than $40-billion laying out new venues, including the cutting edge Water Cube for swimming and the unparalleled Bird’s Nest main stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place.

But their vision soured amid widespread condemnation of China’s crackdown on unrest in Tibet in March that triggered calls for a boycott in many countries.

Already China was being lashed by human rights and religious freedom campaigners, as well as by activists opposed to the Asian giant’s role in the Darfur humanitarian crisis and its support for Burma’s military rulers.

The gulf between China and rest of the world that only seemed to be widening was finally bridged by the devastating earthquake.

But despite a new climate of detente, China’s security-obsessed Olympic organisers are unlikely to let down their guard in the weeks ahead.

In April civil rights campaigner Hu Jia was jailed for five years. Among his crimes was talking to foreign journalists. His arrest and a crackdown on other human rights activists signals China’s determination to avoid any trouble.

Tough new visa requirements for foreigners coming into the country are another aspect of the determination to avert disorder.

Also, foreigners coming to Beijing for the Games have been told to behave.

However, there appears to be little room for doubt that real security threats exist.

The United States and British governments have both issued travel advisories for Beijing, and Interpol has said the city could be a terrorist target during the Games. — Sapa-AFP

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