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Monday, August 4, 2008

"Oh, crap. I told you not to push the plunger until Saturday!"

Three days and that's it.

For hours they waited, on bridges, leaning on guardrails, along the fence surrounding the National Stadium, on curbs and street corners. Traffic on the highway slowed to a standstill, waiters stepped out of restaurants, people filed out of nearby subway stops by the trainload. At 10 p.m. it finally began: first a few quiet rockets, then a barrage of light that seemed to melt the sky into cosmic dust. The second round of Opening Ceremonies rehearsal fireworks lasted only a few minutes Saturday, but the impression it left was indelible. Olympics organizers hope the Games will be the same way. The wait has been long: China won the right to host these Games in 2001, but the country has had its eye on the Olympics for almost as long as modern Olympiads have existed. Exactly 100 years ago, a youth magazine posed the question, "When will China host its first Olympics?" Organizers have done everything they can to make a good impression on the world. Just a week ago, cranes were still busy at work on Tiananmen Square, arranging pots of flowers on 30-foot high structures. It used to be that the Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven were just two old parks in a city full of them; now they are official "Olympics Games watch sites," that will house giant television screens. Sanlitun, a bar district known to attract rowdy patrons, has been transformed into a family-friendly environment. Even the weather seems to be cooperating: two straight nights of rain led to skies opening up to reveal sheets of blue. Despite the efforts, however, we are constantly reminded that these Games will be staged amid controversy, for better or for worse. As recently as last week, a media firestorm was created when journalists discovered they couldn't get onto certain websites from the media center—China had broken its promise to the IOC to allow open access during the Games. There were editorials, rants and formal censures, proving once again hell hath no fury like a disenchanted journo. Still, strolling around the city, there is an overwhelming sense that, at last, Beijing is an Olympic city. It's impossible to walk a city block without seeing an Olympic volunteer, marked by those blue or yellow shirts; it's impossible to avoid the flags, banners and wall-paintings of the Olympic motto "One World One Dream"; it's impossible to even look at a taxi cab and not feel the change—drivers are all wearing yellow shirts and black slacks, as decreed by officials. There are inconveniences, of course, like security lines in the subways (there's only one X-ray machine at each station), but there's also this: you can catch the occasional Olympian strolling by. How cool is that? The question in 1908—"When will China host its first Olympics"—was a mind exercise, a theoretical question meant to challenge the Chinese audience to look at themselves and see how far they lagged behind. Today we would have an altogether different answer. China is about to host the Olympics—the Olympics!—and it's hard to live in this city without feeling that means something. Of course, it bears remembering that the success of these Games is no given, and that what happens from here is anyone's guess. So stay tuned.


Torch relay update: Just passed: Leshan, Sichuan Province—an emotional scene. Next up: Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, where many are still living under tarps due to the May 12 earthquake (and aftershocks) that left more than 69,000 dead. Next up after that: Beijing. For more of the Beijing Bureau, CLICK HERE