News & Current Affairs

August 24, 2008

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

The Bird's Nest stadium hosts the closing ceremony

Plenty of fireworks are in store at the closing ceremony

The Beijing Games draw to a close on Sunday after what many have described as one of the best Olympics ever held.

China, having beaten the United States to top the medals table, will hand the Olympic flag to the 2012 hosts London at a closing ceremony from 1300 BST.

Great Britain surpassed all targets by winning 19 golds at the 2008 Games – their best haul for a century.

Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru won the men’s marathon on the final day, with basketball and boxing finals to come.

Six boxing titles are being decided while the men’s basketball final, featuring the United States and Spain, starts at 0730 BST.

Later, the spectacular farewell in front of a packed house of more than 90,000 at the Bird’s Nest stadium is set to last three hours and will include fireworks displays at 18 locations across Beijing.

The organisers have promised a more light-hearted show than the opening ceremony, which focused heavily on Chinese history.

Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, who claimed three gold medals at the Games, will carry the flag for Team GB at the closing ceremony.

The ceremony will also see London mayor Boris Johnson receive the Olympic flag to signal the countdown to the 2012 Games.

Team GB have been congratulated for their efforts in a message from The Queen.

“As a nation we now look forward to holding the Olympic Games in London in 2012,” she said.”The golden triumphs of the present British team can only serve as further inspiration to those who will be working hard over the next four years to make the London Games a shining example of Olympic success.”

China staged the Olympics against a background dominated by fears of pollution, worries over security and protests about its human rights record.

But the sporting action has been enthralling, with highlights including Michael Phelps swimming to a record eight gold medals and Jamaican Usain Bolt breaking three world records as he bagged a sprint title treble.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spoke on Sunday of his hope that a UK football team could compete in the next Olympics, will attend the closing event.

Prime minister Gordon Brown and footballer Beckham

Brown rubs shoulders with Beckham in Beijing

The London Olympics will also have a eight-minute slot that will feature a version of Led Zeppelin classic Whole Lotta Love performed by the group’s guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Leona Lewis.Footballer David Beckham will be involved as will the Royal Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The closing show will also feature a duet by Chinese folk singer Song Zuying and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, along with a performance by a 350-strong kung-fu group.

There promises to be another spectacular show earlier in the day when the US basketball team, aka the ‘Redeem Team’, look to reclaim their crown against world champions Spain.

There are also six boxing gold medals to be decided, with Ireland’s Kenny Egan going in the light-heavyweight final.

Other finals are taking place in the men’s water polo (0840), men’s volleyball (0500), and men’s handball (0845).

In the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around event, Russia defended their title to take gold, while China claimed silver and Belarus bronze.

In total, there will be 12 gold medals won on the final day of action before the Games are handed on to London.

August 15, 2008

Sixth gold for unstoppable Phelps

Sixth gold for unstoppable Phelps

Swimming superstar Michael Phelps won his sixth gold medal of the Beijing Games, breaking his own world record in the 200m individual medley.

The American won in a time of 1min 54.23secs, shaving 0.57secs off his previous best set in July and setting his sixth world record of the Games.

Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh took silver and Ryan Lochte of the US won bronze.

Phelps, who is chasing an unprecedented eight gold medals in Beijing, now has 12 career Olympic golds to his name.

He led from the start of the race and finished strongly on his favoured freestyle leg, 2.29secs ahead of Cseh in second.

Lochte held on for third despite having raced just half an hour earlier, when he broke the world record to take the men’s 200m backstroke title.

Phelps, 23, the dominant story of the Beijing Olympics, has now won the 400m medley, 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 4x100m free relay, 4x200m free relay and now the 200m medley, all in world record time.

But he showed little reaction apart from a quick shake of his fist after his latest victory.

He is now closing in on Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven golds at a single Games.

Moments after receiving his medal for winning the 200m medley Phelps returned to the pool for the semi-final of the 100m fly, winning in a time of 50.97secs.

“I switched from my dress sweats to my parka, shoes, threw my cap and goggles on and then they pushed us on out. No time,” he said.

“The medal was in my warm-up jacket.”

He added: “There wasn’t much time but I think there’s going to be a lot of time for me to rest over the next 18 hours or so, and I’ll be able to be ready for tomorrow morning’s 100.”

His main rivals in that final will be Milorad Cavic of Croatia and US team-mate and world record holder, Ian Crocker.

“It’s definitely a tough race,” said Phelps.

“With (Cavic) and Ian having a great semi-final, it’s going to be a good race tomorrow.

“I’m going to do everything I can to be a little bit closer in the first 50 and hopefully if I’m there at the 50, I’ll be there at the finish.”

Assuming the US qualify, Phelps will then race in the 4x100m medley relay final on Sunday.

August 14, 2008

Around the Olympics in 800 minutes

Courtesy BBC

Beijing

If they ever do get around to trimming tennis from the Olympics, I would like to suggest a thoroughly amateur activity to take its place: competitive spectating.

The game is simple: you watch as much live, in-the-flesh sport as possible within an allotted time.

Like cricket, there are shorter and longer versions of the game, but unlike cricket there is no time for lunch or tea. I believe the one-day format would work best at an Olympics.

It requires speed, planning and a change of shirt. I know this because I have tried it and I think I’ve set a new world record.

Beijing tour map

Between 10am and 11pm on Wednesday, I rode my mate’s mountain bike (cheers Paul) to 19 different Olympic venues and saw world-class sport in 15 of them, world-class press conferences in three more and 20 Chinese volunteers pretend to be modern pentathletes in another.

I covered about 50km, drank 20 bottles of water, went through three maps and met the entire judging panel from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Perhaps the best way to tell that story, in fact, the whole story, is to start at the beginning. So I will.

Like all elite athletes I think breakfast is the most important meal, so I decided to skip the fare on offer in the media village and have a slap-up feed in a decent hotel downtown – they may now be reconsidering that all-you-can-eat deal.

Adequately fuelled and aboard my mode of transport, I set off from the Financial District and headed southwest for the softball. The thinking here was to start at my southernmost point and move around the city in a clockwise fashion.

Having meandered my way to Fengtai, I found myself at the top of the seventh inning with China pounding Venezuela 7-1.

I can’t remember much about the game mainly because I was worrying about Paul’s bike being destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Because while Katie Melua may be right about there being nine million bikes in Beijing, none of them are welcome at an Olympic venue. Not if you ask for permission first, that is. I would learn that as the day progressed.

From softball I rode north to Wukesong to taste two more slices of Americana, baseball and basketball.

Here my arrival was not particularly well received and my gestures to say, “Can I chain my bike to this please, officer?” were met by stern shakes of the head. Perhaps they didn’t understand my gesture. Strange, I thought that one was universal.

In the end I left it behind some portaloos. I’m not proud.

I got into the baseball in time to see Canada’s Stubby Clapp (honestly, look him up) pop up to right field and was looking at my map when one of his team-mates blasted a three-run homer minutes later. That made it Canada 3-0 China.

Canada's Stubby Clapp

I then went to the basketball and watched Spain’s Anna Montanana drain a jumper for two of her 20 points in the win over the Czech Republic.

From there it was northeast towards the Capital Gymnasium and a dose of clothed women’s volleyball. To be honest, even regular volleyballers don’t wear much and there was a lot of leg on display in this clash between Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Russians were winning but the highlight for me was seeing Kazakh volleyball’s answer to Peter Crouch. I didn’t catch her name but she was wearing number five and you’d know her if you saw her.

Four hours in and I was at the Institute of Technology to see some gymnastics – the hundreds of people heading the opposite direction should have told me I was too late.

I went in anyway, though, and listened to two minutes of a Chinese press conference. As I left I heard a group of volunteers singing little ditties to each other through their megaphones. One of them might have been the girl who actually sang at the Opening Ceremony.

Table tennis was next and the hardest thing here was getting in. You see the staff are only trained to deal with very specific tasks. A journalist coming in through the main entrance (and not arriving by media bus) causes the system to grind to a halt. The fact he was sweating profusely probably didn’t help either.

This would become a recurring theme but competitive spectators have got to deal with these kinds of problems so I was able to overcome all this and catch eight different games of ping-pong at once.

Too much of a good thing? Yes, probably. I tried to concentrate on Ma Lin’s tussle with Panagiotis Gionis of Greece and not the cute Spaniard playing on the other side of the room.

China's Ma Lin in action against Panagiotis Gionis of Greece

It was judo next. Not much to say here except I filled my pockets with Oreo cookies in the media lounge and saw a Colombian beat an Italian in the women’s 70kg category.

Six hours in and it was time to wrestle. To be honest, it was all starting to blur a bit now and the only real difference I can remember between the judo and the wrestling is the costume. And it’s a big difference.

I also got lost in the bowels of the venue (I’d come in the “wrong” entrance again) and ended up in a room with 20 muscular blokes in blue blazers. They were the judges.

I eventually saw Steeve (usual spelling) Guenot beat Konstantin Schneider, apparently, and he would later win gold. Good lad.

I then pedalled hard past the Olympic Village and pushed on to my northernmost point, the Olympic Green Sports Cluster – archery, hockey and tennis.

This is where my ride started to become a cyclo-cross event. Bikes really aren’t allowed this close to the heart of the “Green Olympics” so I was forced to park and proceed by foot.

The next 30 minutes saw me show my face (very briefly) at the tennis (Nadal was winning), narrowly miss Alan Wills’ last-dart victory in the archery (I saw a Korea-Qatar match-up instead) and try to gain entrance to the Great Britain changing room at the hockey (it was locked).

That was 11 venues and 10 sports in just over seven hours. I was knackered. But then I remembered Emma Pooley’s words after her silver-medal performance: “there’s no secret, you just have to make it hurt”.

So I headed south to the Water Cube for swimming, wandered around the corridors under the pool for about 15 minutes and eventually sat down to watch Malta’s Madeleine Scerri win a three-woman, 100m freestyle heat. Now that’s what the Olympics are really about, Michael.

From there it was a short trip to the National Indoor Stadium and an even shorter stay. It was locked. But the fencing venue was just across the road for me to bring up my dozen.

Fencing, by the way, is a great sport to watch. I wish I could have stayed for longer than three minutes. That was long enough, however, to see Yuki Ota of Japan win his semi-final and go absolutely bongo.

Japan's Yuki Ota on his way to a semi-final victory over Italy

I probably should have stopped now. It was dark and I was tired, hungry and smelly. But I wanted more and I really, really wanted to see some handball.

So it was south again to the Olympic Sports Center cluster for five minutes of Norway’s demolition of Kazakhstan (I think I was bad luck for the Kazakhs all day) in the women’s event.

I will definitely return if only to hear more from the American announcer who ticked off a Norwegian player for “roughhousing”.

The next 30 minutes saw me just miss the last water polo game of the day and follow my ears to the modern pentathlon stadium, where Olympic volunteers were pretending to be show-jumping ponies and the stadium announcer was practising his medal ceremony script (he thinks Cuba is going to win).

What happened next was an Olympic event of its own – the 20-minute time-trial to the Workers’ Stadium for the last 10 minutes of the Argentina v Serbia football match.

And my lung-busting, salt-staining effort was rewarded when I flopped into a commentary position to see Diego Buonanotte curl a free-kick home from 25 yards out. Good night, indeed, Diego.

This was my 18th venue, 14th sport and 12th hour. It was time for the coup de grace. Step forward, you beauty, David Price.

Now is not the time to relay all that happened in the Workers’ Gymnasium at around 2200 local time but suffice it to say Team GB’s boxing captain hit the world number one from Russia harder than he had ever been hit before and he didn’t like it.

Cue huge celebrations from Price and his loyal band of Scouse supporters. It was also great to see his team-mates James DeGale and Joe Murray jumping in the aisles too.

So that’s the challenge. Can any of you top 15 different sports in a day?

Until I hear otherwise I’m going to assume it’s a world record. I reckon it will be safe for four years at least.

August 12, 2008

Third gold for unstoppable Phelps

Third gold for unstoppable Phelps

Michael Phelps stormed to victory in the men’s 200m freestyle swimming, claiming his third gold medal and third world record of the Beijing Olympics.

Phelps, 23, finished nearly two seconds ahead of South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan in a time of one minute 42.96 seconds.

The American owned the previous record of 1:43.86 and now has a joint-record nine Olympics career golds.

Phelps’s compatriot Peter Vanderkaay took bronze, while Britain’s Robbie Renwick finished eighth.

“I just wanted to be out on my own which I had done by the 100 metres mark, that was my goal,” said Phelps, who led from start to finish.

“I was out in open water and I was in the middle, which makes it difficult for the other guys to see me.

“I knew Park would have a strong last 50 metres, so I had to keep my focus and concentration.”

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Phelps has already triumphed in the 400m individual medley and 4x100m freestyle relay and looks to be improving with each race.

The 200m freestyle has a medal which eluded him in Athens when he was a bronze medalist behind Australian Ian Thorpe.

“Phelps swam so fast,” said silver medalist Park. “It is my honor to compete with him.”

Phelps’s ninth career Olympic gold draws him level with Mark Spitz Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi and Larysa Latynina and keeps him on course to beat Spitz’s 36-year-old record of seven golds in a single Games.

Racing out of lane six, Phelps quickly surged into the lead and led by a full body length halfway through the second of four lengths.

Phelps will race for his fourth medal on Wednesday in the 200m butterfly, yet another event in which he holds the world record.

He advanced to the final as the fastest qualifier just moments after receiving his 200m freestyle gold medal.

August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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