Beijing's Yearlong Olympic Party Begins

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; 6:27 PM

BEIJING -- As fireworks exploded over Tiananmen Square on Wednesday night, a troupe of 200 youthful singers on a glittering stage below belted out the theme song to mark the one-year countdown for the Beijing Olympics: "We Are Ready."

Make that almost ready.

The city's filthy air, which International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge warned could force the rescheduling of some events, is an embarrassment for the most expensive and anticipated Olympics in a generation.

Rogge's comments earlier in the day took nothing away from the 2 1/2-hour show, broadcast live across China. Actor Jackie Chan and basketball player Yao Ming had their brief moments onstage, sharing it with ethnic dancers, flashy costumes and China's top officials, who promised the games will showcase the country's rising political and economic clout.

"On this very day next year, the Beijing Olympics will be declared open," said Liu Qi, president of the Beijing organizing committee. "People from all over the world are looking forward to that day."

Rogge was a perfect guest among 10,000 people attending the show, saying China was "opening itself to the world in new ways" and that the Olympic venues "look fantastic."

Hours before, however, the normally cautious Belgian was blunt, warning that the thick smog that has blanketed Beijing for months might force some events to be postponed.

"Yes, this is an option," 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."

Few locals heard his comments, which were aired on foreign TV unavailable to the average Chinese.

By coincidence, Wednesday's skies were clearer, but it was muggy with temperatures in the low 90s _ typical for August. The air is sure to be even cleaner a year from now, as factories will be closed, construction will be slowed and 1 million of Beijing's 3.3 million cars will be banned from the roads by China's authoritarian government.

"We want to take this opportunity to 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, head of China's parliament and the Communist Party's No. 2 ranking official.

Played out under a brightly lighted portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong that looms over Tiananmen Square, the ceremony displayed the "immense enthusiasm" of the Chinese people and government for the games, Wu said in a speech laden with jargon such as "Deng Xiaoping theory" and the building of a "harmonious society."

"With one year remaining, we have reached a place from which we can see both vast achievements behind us and the great potential that lies ahead," Rogge said in his speech.

"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 added.

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 2007. 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 revenues expected from TV contracts 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 government.

Although billions of dollars have been spent to move refineries and steel mills out of town to help stem pollution, this can't neutralize frantic construction and car sales.

Officials are also hoping to control the haze by manipulating the weather. Meteorologists began test-firing rockets to disperse rain clouds last month _ a move to guarantee sunshine. They've also tested rockets containing sticks of silver iodide to induce air-cleansing rain.

"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 street etiquette. Everyone _ from taxi drivers to Olympic volunteers _ is being pressured to learn some English.

Revenue from local sponsorship is expected to be about $1.5 billion, at least double that of Sydney or Athens. Billions more will be 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 such as 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."

© 2007 The Associated Press