- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

BEIJING — Countdown clocks scattered across Beijing reach 500 days today, and nobody doubts the stadium, roads and other infrastructure will be ready for one of the most eagerly anticipated Olympics.

This summer, 26 test events will shape up the venues, part of a gargantuan $40 billion building project to modernize China’s capital — with low-slung alleyways and brightly painted, curved wooden roof beams giving way to hundreds of glass towers and cranes.

But it might be the human infrastructure that will come under the most intense scrutiny when 500,000 foreign visitors and 20,000 journalists arrive next summer.

With just more than 16 months to go, the Beijing Organizing Committee largely has shunned foreign expertise, overlooking a bank of technical experts who have worked at other Games.

“I think all the venues are coming along according to the plan and the Olympic Village,” said Gunilla Lindberg of Sweden, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee. “Perhaps they are lacking some staff, but hopefully they will in a couple of months have everything in place — I hope.”

Unlike the 2004 Games in Athens, there will be no last-minute painting, no frantic carpenters adding finishing touches. In fact, Beijing organizers were told a few years ago to slow their pace.

“For sure, Beijing is a lot further ahead than Athens was,” Lindberg said.

Tu Mingde, the former leader of the Chinese Olympic Committee, acknowledged earlier this month that the IOC wants local organizers to hire more foreign experts from previous Games. It was an unusually frank admission from a man instrumental in the city’s winning bid to play host to the Games.

With an 9 percent growth rate for the past 25 years, China is an expert at building things. But the country has no experience with an event as complex as the Olympics and limited contact with a demanding international media that mostly speaks English.

Small items could blindside local organizers.

Signs of trouble already have appeared:

• Last summer’s Junior World Track and Field Championships in Beijing ran smoothly, but the stadium was devoid of concession stands. Chinese organizers didn’t think to provide them. Chinese fans didn’t expect them, but foreigners were surprised.

c For one of the cycling venues, BOCOG has hired a relatively inexperienced photographer in his mid-20s who has worked for the English-language Shanghai Daily newspaper. He will oversee a pack of the world’s most seasoned photographers.

• News releases for BOCOG’s weekly press conferences are in Chinese only. Simultaneous translation to English is provided for interviews, but fluency is spotty.

English also was a problem at the recent Asian Winter Games in northeastern China, viewed as an organizational test.

One official publication described figure skating as “jump, going around and posing on the ice with skates.” Snowboarding was “upspring with standing upside down and going round.” Speedskating was “to skate on the lane of ice rink speedy.”

Security also was lax at some venues. And mostly college-age volunteers crowded around Chinese winners, turning a medal ceremony into chaos.

“They know they are lacking the international experience and need to bring in expertise,” said Lindberg, who was in Beijing earlier this month.

She said some departments, including Olympic marketing, had been quick to hire foreign help. Others have been slower.

“Until now I have only Chinese staff on the venue teams,” said Sun Weijia, BOCOG’s director of media operations, which is in charge of services for the expected 20,000 media members. “I don’t have any foreign staff, but I do have some advisers from overseas.”

He said fewer than 100 non-Chinese would be needed, most coming two or three months before the Games.

“I think that it is quite normal for them [IOC] to have some concerns,” Sun said. “But I think we are trying to respond to them very positively because we plan to hire some foreign expertise.”

Behind the differing expectations lies a clash in agendas. Though the Olympics are an international stage, the communist government is aiming at a domestic audience of 1.3 billion, hoping to generate pride and boost popularity.

Susan E. Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on China sports, said the country wants to run its own Games, partly as a sign it has overthrown the Western colonialism and domination that plagued China 100 years ago.

“Letting Westerners organize their Olympic sports would have a bad resonance,” she said. “The Olympic Games should be a stepping stone to an increasing Chinese presence in the Western-dominated institutions and cliques that underpin the world of international sports. If you give Westerners too much control, it just reinforces the Western-dominated status quo.”

Tracey Holmes, a journalist who worked in Beijing for two years for CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, offered a similar explanation.

“They don’t want credit going outside the country when this is essentially what they consider to be their event,” she said.

Holmes anchors a weekend sports program for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and worked for the Sydney organizing committee for the 2000 Olympics. She experienced China’s centralized top-down management and suggested it might hurt.

“In the heat of the Olympic Games, all sorts of things happen — the politics, the behind the scenes shenanigans, positive drug tests. All the planning stuff you have on paper goes out the window. I guess the big question is whether people are ready for that.”

Relaxed rules for reporters went into effect Jan. 1, a move China hopes will generate positive coverage.

It’s also likely to magnify festering problems.

Beijing’s air pollution is among Asia’s worst and efforts to clean up might be outpaced by booming industrialization. Officials have shuttered several chemical and steel plants on the city’s edge, and many polluters will shut down — or cut back — during the Games.

“The air is not good enough yet, Lindberg said. “And the traffic just now is terrible.”

The city has 2.9 million registered vehicles, and the number is expected to reach 3.3 million by the Olympics, a 13 percent increase. This will be remedied temporarily by special Olympic lanes for dignitaries and government-ordered bans on driving.

The government’s also trying to ban bad manners. Chinese officials want to soften the country’s economically aggressive image, and a campaign to change behavior, targeting spitting in public, is under way.

Officials have designated the 11th of each month “Queue-up Day,” with Liu Qi, chairman of the Beijing Organizing Committee, leading the manners lessons at venues around the city.

There are even concerns about the torch relay. This summer’s rehearsal could be problematic, with some environmentalists opposed to taking the torch to the top of Mt. Everest. It’s also unclear whether the torch will go to Taiwan, which split from China in 1949 and has rejected reunification with the mainland.

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