Monday, November 20, 2006

Beijing building the Olympic dream

By Carrie Gracie
BBC News, Beijing

"The Olympics is seen as a chance to show China as rich and united

The Beijing Olympics may be almost two years away for you, but this city lives and breathes it.

Ever since it won the bid, the Chinese capital has been straining every sinew to make the 2008 Olympics the best ever.

The stadiums rising over the Beijing skyline are cutting-edge, a firm statement about China's growing confidence on the world stage.

And it is not just Olympic architecture - subways, roads, railways and a huge new airport from one of the world's top architects are also being built.

Beijing is using the Olympics to transform itself into a fitting capital for a 21st century superpower.

Making up for lost time

For the ruling Communist Party this is also an important re-branding exercise. If it can demonstrate to its own public that Beijing is accepted and respected on the international stage, and if it can persuade the world that - political corruption and repression notwithstanding - China is strong, rich and united, it wins twice over from the games.

A win on the field would be gratifying too. Arguments over Taiwan kept Chinese athletes out of the Olympics until 1980, but they have been making up for lost time.

China was only three gold medals behind the US in 2004, and to come top on home turf would make Beijing's 2008 celebration complete.

Sports chiefs have just told their athletes to cut out socialising and avoid all the lucrative distractions of advertising and self-promotion, so they can focus their energy on training.

Critics mutter that China pushes its athletes too hard and still harbours drugs cheats in some sports.

But Olympic gold medallist Deng Yaping told me China's athletes are cleaner than most others, and that the authorities are determined to stamp out drugs altogether.

As for being bullied, she was picked as a future table tennis star at the age of five and spent 20 years inside the sports system.

She insists that it is the athletes who push themselves. She says she got only encouragement from her coaches.

Good impressions

The public is in training too. Mass campaigns of self-improvement are under way, with schoolchildren taking part in Olympic quizzes and essay competitions, and their parents are being urged to learn English and study books on etiquette.

China wants to make the best possible impression on the world in 2008. Spitting, jostling, swearing or surliness will not be permitted.

When I carried out a random survey of Beijingers in a vegetable market and on a bus, I did not find anyone complaining about all of this. They said the Games had helped modernise their city and boost the economy.

Even the builders from southern China I found squatting at the roadside over a mug of rice and vegetables had more complaints about their lunch than the Olympics. They said the Games would be a proud moment for the nation.

Outside China, not everyone is convinced. Political and religious exiles argue that Beijing should never have been awarded the Olympics and that anyone who cares about human rights or democracy should boycott the 2008 event.

Beijing's backers say the opposite is true, that the Olympics is opening China to the world in every field from sport to broadcasting and architecture.

The legacy of 2008, they hope, will be not just stadiums, medals and fireworks, but a government which is more responsive to its own people."

The last paragraph is really heartwarming. I hope it turns out this way.



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