- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING | The world’s most populous country on Friday takes sports’ largest stage, trying to make a tough sell.

Organizers prepared for the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics under smoggy skies and on peaceful streets even as protesters in cyberspace and around the globe voiced their displeasure about China’s record on human rights.

The People’s Republic of China, dogged by criticisms and images of its citizens as poor and its cities as polluted, wants to use the Olympics to present to a viewing audience of 4 billion a picture of a burgeoning cultural and economic powerhouse.

With essentially an unlimited budget - $50 million was set aside just for the opening ceremonies - China has spared zero expense to ensure athletes and spectators leave saying they visited the best Olympics facilities in the history of the games.

But the country will have a tough time deflecting the criticisms.

“These Olympics will always be associated with China’s human rights policy,” said Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur.

The years of rancor surrounding the selection of Beijing as host of the Olympics do not resonate in this city of nearly 17 million. Some protests are expected, and authorities were quick Wednesday to remove a “Free Tibet” sign.

All countries are scheduled to march in the opening ceremonies, though efforts to have North Korea and South Korea appear together failed. The two Koreas marched together under a “unification flag” in Sydney and Athens.

“We’ve tried to have this in Beijing,” International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge said. “Unfortunately it was not possible. … And I regret this very much because this is a setback for peace and harmony and reunification.”

A group of 40 athletes, meanwhile, signed an open letter asking for religious freedom in Tibet - an act not in violation of the Olympic charter because the protest didn’t take place in an Olympic stadium.

The story outside China was different. From cyberspace to Congress to refugee camps in Chad, protesters around the world criticized China’s human rights records.

Protesters cite an array of grievances, from China’s restrictions on free speech to its friendly relations with Sudan to repression of Tibetan monks and its crackdown on practitioners of the religious movement Falun Gong.

Dream for Darfur is sending actress Mia Farrow for a live webcast from refugee camps in eastern Chad, where thousands of Darfurians have fled ethnic conflict in Sudan.

“China drew first blood on that, because China in part said it would change its human rights policies as a result of getting the games,” said Miss Savitt, who founded Dream for Darfur in 2007 to use the Olympics as a means of highlighting China’s economic influence in Khartoum. “I think it’s fair to judge them on that. They opened up that line of inquiry.”

The group also lobbied the top 19 Olympic corporate sponsors, companies such as Coca-Cola Co., Adidas and Volkswagen AG, to pressure Chinese officials to intervene in Sudan, a country that exports 70 percent of its oil to China.

“I think we have tarnished their games,” said Miss Savitt, who applied and was denied a humanitarian visa to enter China during the Olympics.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said Beijing officials are concerned about humanitarian problems in the region.

“Our challenge has been playing an active and constructive role in pushing forward the peaceful settlement process there,” spokesman Wang Baodong told The Washington Times. “China will continue to do whatever is necessary to help settle the issue. On the other side, we believe that China should not be singled out. It is the whole international community, including some other major Western countries, that should also contribute to the settlement of the issue.”

Air quality has been another longstanding issue surrounding the Olympics.

On Thursday, Mr. Rogge called China’s effort to improve air quality “extraordinary.”

Still, every morning starts with a smog that resembles fog. The sun doesn’t usually make an appearance until noon. On Thursday, the reported air pollution index in the city was 96, close to exceeding the national level for acceptable air. The average concentration in the air of Beijing’s worst pollutant, particulate matter 10, was six times higher than the World Health Organization guidelines for healthy air, according to the Associated Press.

But walking a reasonable distance doesn’t cause breathing problems for visitors, and each of the American athletes and coaches asked this week have said the pollution has not altered their training approach.

China intended the Olympics to serve as an example of the effectiveness of their state, and things have run smoothly leading up to the games. Shuttle buses carrying athletes, coaches and reporters generally arrive on time, and each bus carries a volunteer who speaks passable English and often triple-checks the passenger’s destination.

Taxis are another story. To guarantee not getting lost, customers often ask a security guard to explain in Chinese the final stop.

It’s that extra effort that has gone a long way as the people of Beijing have embraced their visitors.

Well after midnight earlier this week, a young waiter asked whether his customers were Americans. Told they were, he peppered them with questions about the West and how he wanted to come to “the United of States.”

A waiter on Thursday spoke very little English but was quick to call a manager to ask for help in describing the menu. Just about every volunteer and restaurant employee has down “hello” and “you’re welcome.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the Olympics, visitors still manage to have a good time.

Fireworks spark each night, and in the electric, tourist-friendly Houhan Lake District, diners sit under the stars, next to a man-made lake filled with paddle boats. At the east end of the lake, at least 500 people take part in a dance exercise that looked like the Macarena.

The showcase of the city has become the Olympic Green, located in the north-central part of town. It will host several events, including gymnastics, swimming and track and field. The “Water Cube” changes colors at night, creating a glow visible from nearby buildings.

The government hired international architecture firms to modernize their ancient city. In building 37 venues, more than $1 billion was spent.

The bizarre-looking “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium will host tonight’s ceremonies, plus track and field and the gold medal men’s soccer game. The building, designed by a Swiss firm, seats 91,000 and cost $400 million. During construction, workers earned $50 for one seven-day, 63-hour workweek.

Complementing the athletic venues were $40 billion worth of construction and/or improvements on highways, subways and skyscrapers. The airport added a third terminal, and the city replaced 50,000 taxis and 10,000 buses.

The urban renewal displaced many people, and the government reportedly offered residents a third of their home’s value. Ganjing Hutong, a straight of historic neighborhoods in south Beijing, lost 66 percent of its residents to make way for development.

cCarrie Sheffield contributed to this story.

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