February 27, 2006

No rest for Beijing after Turin lessons learned

By Nick Mulvenney

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese officials have just 170 days to
digest what they learned at the Turin Winter Games before the
arrival of athletes for the first test event for the 2008
Beijing Summer Games.

China is leaving nothing to chance as the biggest economic
story of the early 21st century prepares to welcome the world
to its coming out party, a gala the Communist Party hopes will
strengthen support for its rule.

Not for Beijing the construction delays, International
Olympic Committee (IOC) warnings and frantic last-minute
efforts to finish venues that marred the run-up to the Athens
Games in 2004.

All of the 2008 venues are scheduled to be completed next
year and two of them -- the softball stadium and the sailing
facility in the city of Qingdao -- will host test events in
August this year.

Chinese officials were much in evidence in Turin, taking
full advantage of their last chance to observe how another city
dealt with hosting the Olympic family.

"The objective of my visit is to learn from the experience
of the Turin Games and we have learned a lot," said Liu Qi,
president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic
Games (BOCOG) in a statement.

In Turin the officials saw that catering for the needs of
thousands of athletes, officials and media as well as creating
a suitably celebratory atmosphere was not just about getting
the bricks and mortar in place.

A statement released after a meeting of officials in
Beijing on Friday urged "a shift of the focal point of
preparatory work to competition venues operations."

Perhaps in response to the traffic problems that at one
stage threatened chaos around Turin, Liu also called for "a
well-considered precautionary scheme to deal with any
unexpected cases."

Beijing's traffic is notoriously bad but officials remain
confident that their heavy investment in new roads and railways
will improve matters greatly before the arrival of the more
than two million visitors expected for the Games.

The estimated $40 billion set aside for infrastructure
improvements will also tackle another Beijing blight, air

Liu told the IOC in Turin that the air in Beijing was
already getting better, with 248 days of good or better air
quality in 2005 compared to 50 in 2004, although that may come
as a surprise to many residents.

With companies falling over themselves to grab a slice of
China's huge market, officials are confident sponsorship deals
will ensure they make a significant profit on their close to $2
billion operating budget.


Beijing's 14 million or so residents are also being
encouraged to get into the Olympic spirit with local government
initiatives being launched to improve manners around the city
being announced this month.

On the sporting front, much more will be expected from
Chinese athletes in 2008 than the two gold, four silver and
five bronze medals they won in Turin.

"China isn't a heavyweight in winter sports, which was a
result of China's social and economic development as well as
that of weather and geographical conditions," one of China's
chefs de mission Cui Dalin told the official Xinhua news

Their first gold medal on snow, however, illustrated how
China has plotted its rise in the sporting world and why some
are already talking about the hosts topping the medal table in

Han Xiaopeng, who won the men's aerials gold in freestyle
skiing, comes from south China and had never seen snow before
being picked to take part in a winter sports development
program at the age of 12 on the basis of his acrobatic skills.

His skills were honed initially by Chinese coaches before
foreign expertise in the shape of Canadian Dustin Wilson was
brought in to help make him an Olympic champion.

With the success of similar programs in other sports,
expectations in China are running so high that officials have
downplaying hopes that the country can even repeat its Athens
haul of 32 golds.

There are still flies hovering over Beijing's ointment --
alleged human right abuses, media censorship and squabbles with
Taiwan to name but a few.

But with just over 30 months until the Olympic flame
arrives at Beijing's state-of-the-art new stadium, few previous
host cities can claim to have been so far down the road in
their preparations.