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China celebrates one-year countdown to start of Olympics

8/8/2007

BEIJING -- As fireworks exploded over Tiananmen Square on
Wednesday night, a troupe of 200 youthful singers on a glittering
stage below belted out the theme song to mark the one-year
countdown for the Beijing Olympics: "We Are Ready."

Make that almost ready.

The city's filthy air, which International Olympic Committee
President Jacques Rogge warned could force the rescheduling of some
events, is an embarrassment for the most expensive and anticipated
Olympics in a generation.

Rogge's comments earlier in the day took nothing away from the
2½-hour show, broadcast live across China. Actor Jackie Chan and
basketball player Yao Ming had their brief moments onstage, sharing
it with ethnic dancers, flashy costumes and China's top officials,
who promised the games will showcase the country's rising political
and economic clout.

"On this very day next year, the Beijing Olympics will be
declared open," said Liu Qi, president of the Beijing organizing
committee. "People from all over the world are looking forward to
that day."

Rogge was a perfect guest among 10,000 people attending the
show, saying China was "opening itself to the world in new ways"
and that the Olympic venues "look fantastic."

Hours before, however, the normally cautious Belgian was blunt,
warning that the thick smog that has blanketed Beijing for months
might force some events to be postponed.

"Yes, this is an option," Rogge told CNN. "It would not be
necessary for all sports, sports with short durations would not be
a problem. But definitely the endurance sports like the cycling
race where you have to compete for six hours, these are examples of
competitions that might be postponed or delayed to another day."

Few locals heard his comments, which were aired on foreign TV
unavailable to the average Chinese.

By coincidence, Wednesday's skies were clearer, but it was muggy
with temperatures in the low 90s -- typical for August. The air is
sure to be even cleaner a year from now, as factories will be
closed, construction will be slowed and 1 million of Beijing's 3.3
million cars will be banned from the roads by China's authoritarian
government.

"We want to take this opportunity to show the world that the
people of China are committed to the success of the games and we
believe we will deliver it," said Wu Bangguo, head of China's
parliament and the Communist Party's No. 2 ranking official.

Played out under a brightly lighted portrait of Chairman Mao
Zedong that looms over Tiananmen Square, the ceremony displayed the
"immense enthusiasm" of the Chinese people and government for the
games, Wu said in a speech laden with jargon such as "Deng
Xiaoping theory" and the building of a "harmonious society."

"With one year remaining, we have reached a place from which we
can see both vast achievements behind us and the great potential
that lies ahead," Rogge said in his speech.

"The world is watching China and Beijing with great
expectations. The athletes also have great expectations and they
are all looking forward to competing in the state-of-the-art
Beijing venues," Rogge added.

The timing of the ceremony -- the eighth day of the eighth month
at 8 p.m. -- was specially chosen: Eight is considered an auspicious
number in Chinese because it rhymes with the word for "prosper."

China's government has been efficient in building venues. Except
for the iconic "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, all of the 37
venues are to be finished by the end of 2007. Venue construction
has eaten up only a part of the $40 billion being spent on new
subway lines and skyscrapers to remake the capital.

There have been few delays, and the $2.1 billion operating
budget has been offset by the vast revenues expected from TV
contracts and sponsorships. That has allowed attention to focus on
Beijing's choking pollution, campaigns to "civilize" the city and
the risks involved for China's government.

Although billions of dollars have been spent to move refineries
and steel mills out of town to help stem pollution, this can't
neutralize frantic construction and car sales.

Officials are also hoping to control the haze by manipulating
the weather. Meteorologists began test-firing rockets to disperse
rain clouds last month -- a move to guarantee sunshine. They've also
tested rockets containing sticks of silver iodide to induce
air-cleansing rain.

"They've told us the factories will be closed for three months
in 2008 and that they will have a directive to encourage residents
to stay off the roads with their cars," said Steven Roush, chief
of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Like other national Olympics bodies, the USOC is monitoring the
quality of Beijing's air, laden with ozone, dust and exhaust from
some aging vehicles.

Image is important with 550,000 foreign visitors and about
22,000 accredited media set to attend. In addition, up to 10,000
non-accredited journalists are expected.

Old habits, such as spitting in public, jumping ahead in line
and littering, are under siege in various campaigns aimed at
improving street etiquette. Everyone -- from taxi drivers to Olympic
volunteers -- is being pressured to learn some English.

Revenue from local sponsorship is expected to be about $1.5
billion, at least double that of Sydney or Athens. Billions more
will be spent on advertising and promotional campaigns.

Although many athletes will eat specialized diets provided by
their own teams, Olympic organizers also have promised to track
food electronically from the field to the consumer. The state-run
China Daily newspaper reported recently that mice will be used to
test food samples.

The biggest security threat -- to the Chinese government -- may
come not from al-Qaida but from protesters hoping to highlight
causes such as labor rights or China's role in the Darfur crisis.
Other protests may center on Tibetans who seek autonomy, religious
activists, and calls for media freedom and the release of political
prisoners.

"Great achievement is always accompanied by great challenges,"
said Jiang Xiaoyu, an organizing committee executive vice
president. "While the Beijing Olympics are a great opportunity, we
are also confronted with huge challenges."