Savoring the Olympic Spotlight

A Chinese tourist poses for a photo on the plaza in front of the Olympic Water Cube, where the aquatic events will take place, with the "Bird's Nest" stadium in the background.
A Chinese tourist poses for a photo on the plaza in front of the Olympic Water Cube, where the aquatic events will take place, with the "Bird's Nest" stadium in the background. (By Jill Drew -- The Washington Post)
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By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 4, 2008

BEIJING -- Zhang Guohui has dreamed of taking his wife and daughter to Beijing for seven years, ever since China was given the nod to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

"This shows we are a powerful country," Zhang said. "Why has the United States been able to hold an Olympics three times? Because it is a strong country. Now, we are the host. It is a sign of state power."

Like thousands of Chinese streaming into Beijing, Zhang is here to revel in Olympics glory. He doesn't have tickets to any events and is returning to his native Hunan province before the Games begin. But the sports don't matter much, he said. He simply wanted to bask in the pride of the moment, he said, proud to be Chinese at the opening of an era in which China commands global respect. "If we didn't come, we would regret it," Zhang said.

Much of the world is talking about Beijing's pollution, China's deteriorating human rights protections and the crackdown in Tibet, but the Chinese -- like the Communist Party itself -- see the Games as an affirmation of how far China has come.

More than 500,000 Chinese from all over the country are expected to visit Beijing this month. Although many, like Zhang, do not have tickets to any events, they're delighted to be close to the action and to load up on Olympics merchandise. Zhang's wife, for instance, wore earrings in the shape of one of the Olympic mascots, the red Fuwa character.

The family spent last week touring marvels of modern engineering, such as the city's new stadiums and the icons of its ancient culture, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. "One represents the future, and one represents the past," Zhang said. "And both represent that China is great."

The highlight for Zhang was watching the Chinese flag being raised over Tiananmen Square. He and his family awoke at 2 a.m. to get a good viewing spot for the daily dawn ceremony, which attracts hundreds of Chinese.

Zhang said he gave his 7-year-old daughter two small flags to wave as the soldiers performed the solemn ceremony. He knelt and explained to her the importance of patriotism as symbolized by the flag's five gold stars on its bright red background.

"The large star represents the Communist Party, and the other four stars form a semicircle around it," he told her. "That shows we are unified. We are together."

The giddy excitement of many ordinary Chinese for the chance to sparkle in the global spotlight is palpable, and increases the closer one gets to any Olympic venue.

Last week, Shen Zhiyong, 35, a salesman from the southern city of Guangzhou, twirled his 3-year-old son in a dizzying circle on the plaza in front of the Water Cube, a rectangular building whose walls resemble giant bubbles. Shen erupted in laughter as he swept his arm to take in the expanse of the vista.

"It's a miracle!" Shen exclaimed, snapping photos of his 9-year-old daughter dancing in front of the building, where the aquatic competitions will be held. "The image China will show to the world must be different than what they've heard before."

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