Olympics: Red carpet rolled out, but not for all

BEIJING (AFP) - China’s 40-billion-dollar welcome mat is almost in place as Beijing prepares to woo the world – barring unwelcome guests – to the Olympic Games in August.

In the lead-up to Friday’s six-month countdown, the country’s rulers called for a final push for the success of an event seen as a chance to trumpet China’s transformation from poverty to economic powerhouse within a generation.

“Time is running out… work is getting urgent. The whole party and society must mobilise further,” said a statement from the ruling Communist Party’s politburo.

Beggars, street peddlers, prostitutes and other undesirables are disappearing from streets on government orders to clean up the city’s image, while domestic critics are being silenced in a “strike-hard” policy against opposition.

Newspapers are also reportedly banned from printing negative stories on the Games.

The detention of AIDS activist and civil rights defender Hu Jia, 34, in December, indicates that China is determined to stamp out any political dissent ahead of the Olympics.

Critics of the regime outside China were also put on notice in a recent editorial by the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, that their attacks “will not be tolerated.”

Pressure on issues such as Darfur, Taiwan, Tibet and human rights is doomed to fail, it said.

“No country in the world would yield to pressure imposed on its core interests for the sake of hosting the Olympic Games,” the newspaper said, indicating that if push came to shove, national interests would trump the Olympics every time.

China’s goal is to run a high-quality Games with distinguishing characteristics, according to the official mantra, and money has been no object.

Since being named the host city in 2001 Beijing has gone on a massive spending spree on infrastructure, and the last piece in the jigsaw will fit into place in April or May, when the main stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, is completed.

Planners have commissioned the world’s top architects to build marble, steel and glass monuments, which dot Beijing’s skyline, and unparallelled sports venues. Meanwhile, more than 40 foreign coaches have been drafted to prepare Chinese athletes.

“I am filled with emotion,” French head swimming coach Claude Fauquet said, standing inside the newly opened National Aquatics Centre, known as the Water Cube.

“I am thinking about what my swimmers will feel when they see this magnificent work. It is truly a venue worthy of the Olympics.”

Risks remain, however, and the biggest of all is pollution. Beijing has spent about 12 billion dollars since 2001 on an environmental clean-up but bad air remains the International Olympic Committee’s main concern.

Beijing plans to adopt “contingency” measures including pulling more than one million of the city’s three million cars off the roads during the Games.

A trial for four days in August did cut pollution, but that may not be enough and some top athletes are concerned.

Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie told AFP this week that he was considering missing the marathon, for which he holds the world record, because of the air.

“Compared to other events, the marathon is a very hard event for us in Beijing because of the bad air,” said the marathon world record holder, who suffers from asthma. “It is 42 kilometres and lasts for more than two hours. To run that long in these conditions is very difficult.”

Women’s Olympic tennis champion Justine Henin, an asthmatic who pulled out of the China Open in September because of pollution fears, may not defend her title for the same reason.

But ordinary Chinese, fed on a diet of propaganda by state media, from which negative news is excluded, will never hear about Gebrselassie’s concerns.

Olympic fervour is building here six months out, and crowds now gather on weekends outside the Bird’s Nest, the iconic stadium of steel beams that cost nearly half a billion dollars.

“I come here a lot to see the stadium,” said Jin Xiangyong, a Beijing bureaucrat in his mid 30s.

“The government, the people, everyone cares about the Games from the bottom of our hearts so we will do this perfectly.”</p>

The opening ceremony at the OG in Sydney was the most outstanding one I’ve ever seen. Saying this to a Chinese track and field guy, his answer was - ‘You haven’t seen anything yet’!! I’ll wait for August …