Wednesday, August 8, 2007

China begins one-year countdown to Beijing Olympics


China celebrated the one-year countdown to the start of the Beijing Games with dance, music and fireworks in Tiananmen Square on Wednesday night, while the Olympics chief warned that the capital's dirty air could force the rescheduling of some events.

The sprawling plaza in the heart of the Chinese capital was the center of the celebration that included dancers in glittery garb and pop singers belting out a theme song as a countdown clock hit 8 p.m., exactly 12 months until the start of the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, 2008.

Mixed in with the spectacle, politicians spoke of the smooth progress toward preparing for an event China hopes will showcase its rising political and economic clout.

"We want to take this opportunity to the show the world that the people of China are committed to the success of the games and we believe we will deliver it," said Wu Bangguo, the head of China's parliament and the Communist Party's No. 2 ranking official.

Hours before Wednesday's big party, however, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the dirty air in Beijing might force some events to be postponed.

"Yes, this is an option," the normally cautious Rogge told CNN. "It would not be necessary for all sports, sports with short durations would not be a problem. But definitely the endurance sports like the cycling race where you have to compete for six hours, these are examples of competitions that might be postponed or delayed to another day."

Wednesday's ceremony intended to display the "immense enthusiasm" of the Chinese people and government for the Games, Wu said in a speech laden with communist jargon such as "Deng Xiaoping theory" and the building of a "harmonious society."

Rogge told the crowd that Beijing organizers had worked "extremely hard to give Beijing an Olympic shape."

"The world is watching China and Beijing with great expectations. The athletes also have great expectations and they are all looking forward to competing in the state-of-the-art Beijing venues," Rogge said.

"Beijing and China will not only host a successful games for the world's premier athletes, but will also provide an excellent opportunity to discover China, its history, its culture and its people, with China opening itself to the world in new ways," he said.

"From what we have seen so far, the preparations for Beijing 2008 are truly impressive in every regard," he said. "I don't think we have ever seen preparations on this scale."

Beijing's new anthem -- the just-released pop song "We're Ready" -- opened the ceremony, sung by a chorus of Chinese celebrities on a stage surrounded by banks of searchlights.

The timing of the ceremony -- the eighth day of the eighth month at 8 p.m. -- was specially chosen: Eight is considered an auspicious number in Chinese because it rhymes with the word for "prosper."

China's government has been efficient in building venues. Except for the iconic "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, all of the 37 venues are to be finished by the end of this year. Venue construction has eaten up only a part of the $40 billion being spent on new subway lines and skyscrapers to remake the capital.

There have been few delays, and the $2.1 billion operating budget has been offset by the vast revenue expected from TV and sponsorships. That has allowed attention to focus on Beijing's choking pollution, campaigns to "civilize" the city and the risks involved for China's authoritarian government.

Although billions of dollars have been spent to move refineries and steel mills out of town to help stem the pollution, Beijing has been blanketed for weeks by choking industrial smog.

To guarantee clean air during the 17-day Olympics, about 1 million of the city's 3.3 million vehicles are expected to be kept off the roads. Officials are also hoping to control the weather. Meteorologists began tests last month, firing rockets to disperse rain clouds -- a move to guarantee sunshine. They've also fired rockets containing sticks of silver iodide to induce rain to clean the air.

"They've told us the factories will be closed for three months in 2008 and that they will have a directive to encourage residents to stay off the roads with their cars," said Steven Roush, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Like other national Olympics bodies, the USOC is monitoring the quality of Beijing's air, laden with ozone, dust and exhaust from some aging vehicles.

Image is important with 550,000 foreign visitors and about 22,000 accredited media set to attend. In addition, up to 10,000 non-accredited journalists are expected.

Old habits, such as spitting in public, jumping ahead in line and littering are under siege in various campaigns aimed at improving the behavior of China's citizens. Everyone -- from taxi drivers to Olympic volunteers -- is being pressured to learn some English.

Revenue from local sponsorship is expected to be at least double that of Sydney or Athens, reported to reach $1.5 billion, with billions more spent on advertising and promotional campaigns.

Although many athletes will eat specialized diets provided by their own teams, Olympic organizers also have promised to track food electronically from the field to the consumer. The state-run China Daily newspaper reported recently that mice will be used to test food samples.

The biggest security threat -- to the Chinese government -- may come not from al-Qaida but from protesters hoping to highlight causes like labor rights or China's role in the Darfur crisis. Other protests may center on Tibetans who seek autonomy, religious activists, and calls for media freedom and the release of political prisoners.

"Great achievement is always accompanied by great challenges," said Jiang Xiaoyu, an organizing committee executive vice president. "While the Beijing Olympics are a great opportunity, we are also confronted with huge challenges."

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