News & Current Affairs

August 8, 2008

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

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“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

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August 7, 2008

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Security personnel stand in front of a Bird's Nest stadium hidden by haze on 7 August 2008

Concerns over air quality have persisted in the run-up to the Games

Beijing’s air quality poses no risk to athletes’ health, Jacques¬† Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has told reporters.

Mr Rogge said checks were in place to protect competitors amid persistent concerns about poor air quality.

He was speaking as dignitaries from around the world gathered in China’s capital for Friday’s opening ceremony.

Among them is US President George Bush, who earlier expressed “deep concerns” about Beijing’s human rights record.

Speaking in the Thai capital, Bangkok, before travelling to the Games, Mr Bush praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realize its full potential.

China later rejected Mr Bush’s criticisms as “interference” in its internal affairs.

Air target missed

A day before the Games, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality was far below World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

It put levels of particulate matter (PM10) at 191 micrograms per cubic metre. This far exceeds the WHO target of 50 micrograms/cubic metre, and also exceeds the WHO target for developing countries of 150 micrograms/cubic metre.

Graph

But Mr Rogge insisted there was no threat to Olympic competitors.

“Of course we prefer clear skies, but the most important thing is that the health of the athletes is protected,” Mr Rogge said in the news conference.

He said there was “absolutely no danger” to the health of athletes taking part in events that last less than one hour. But he said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than that could be shifted or postponed.

Mr Rogge urged reporters to distinguish between fog and pollution – a point, correspondents say, often made by Chinese authorities.

“The fog, you see, is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean that this fog is the same as pollution,” he said.

And he praised China’s efforts to clean up the air around Beijing – efforts, he said, which would “continue and have a lasting influence on the climate of Beijing”.

Separately, Mr Rogge said athletes would be prevented from making any political statement or protest in official venues – in accordance with Rule 51 of the Olympic charter, which forbids athletes from making political, religious, commercial or racial propaganda.

But he said they were free to do this in protest areas provided by Chinese authorities, and that “common sense” would be used to judge violations.

China defense

Earlier in the day, the Olympic torch began making its last stops on a journey that has seen it pass through five continents.

America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists
President Bush

Patriotic crowds lined the mist-shrouded Great Wall waving fans and cheering, while streams of confetti shot into the air as the torch was lit from the Olympic flame.

The torch, while welcomed in many nations, has also been a magnet for protesters critical of China’s respect for rights.

Mr Bush hit out at China’s “detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists” before he arrived in China for the opening ceremony.

But China offered a robust defence of its record in response, insisting it “put its people first”.

In other developments:

  • The two Koreas said they would not march together at the opening ceremony, a reversal on the last two Olympic Games
  • Tibetan groups have held large protests in both India and Nepal on the eve of the Games
  • China has selected basketball star Yao Ming to carry the national flag in the opening ceremony.

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