BEIJING : China declared Thursday it was ready to stage one of the greatest Olympics ever, even as pollution concerns and human rights controversies hung over the final day of preparations for the opening ceremony.
As the world’s best athletes poured into Beijing and the Olympic flame passed over the Great Wall, Games organisers sought to shift global attention on to what they promise will be a spectacular celebration of sport.
“We have prepared for the Beijing Olympics for seven years and now we are ready… we are very confident indeed that we will stage a successful Olympics,” organising committee spokesman Sun Weide told AFP.
“Of course we hope that these will be a great Games, even the greatest.”
For China, the Games are an opportunity to show the world how far it has come since the communists came to power in 1949 following a brutal civil war, and particularly the past three decades of phenomenal economic development.
The Olympics offer a promise of becoming an historic moment showing China’s social as well as economic transformation, similar to the 1964 Games for Japan and the 1988 event for South Korea.
“China is a nation in transition, with a great future, tremendous potential and some challenges,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said after arriving in Beijing.
“I believe history will view the 2008 Olympics as a significant milestone in China’s remarkable transformation.”
Nevertheless, the vast array of controversies that have swirled around the Olympics this year continued Thursday to bedevil the Chinese leadership, from the smog that has stubbornly hung over Beijing to human rights storms.
A mixture of pollution and fog again cut visibility across Beijing to a few hundred metres despite much publicised emergency measures to improve air quality.
The pollution issue has been particularly embarrassing for China because it has highlighted to the world one of the worst side-effects of its historic modernisation drive — massive environmental degradation.
Meanwhile, China’s human rights record remained under a fierce Olympic spotlight with over 40 athletes who are due to compete in Beijing sending a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concern over the issue.
US President George W. Bush was also due to arrive in Beijing on Thursday evening after delivering a speech in which he raised “deep concerns” about China’s respect for human rights.
“The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” Bush said in Thailand.
More than 100 heads of state and other senior national leaders are expected to attend the Games, ensuring a current of political tensions will flow through the event despite China’s leaders repeated efforts to dam the issue.
However that is all expected to be at least briefly swept aside during the much anticipated opening ceremony that will kick off on Friday, August 8 at 8:00pm (1200 GMT).
The date and time of the ceremony is no coincidence as, for many Chinese, number eight is a particularly auspicious number because it represents prosperity.
And sporting glory will undoubtedly be the main focus for the 10,000 athletes, with US basketball star Kobe Bryant reflecting those passions as he declared that winning gold in Beijing was more important than an NBA title.
“You’re playing for your country, there’s more at stake,” he said as the “Redeem Team” prepared in Shanghai this week.
Equally, enthusiasm for the Games among China’s more than 1.3 billion people has been so strong that tickets have sold out for the first time in Olympic history.
“The Olympic Games is the most important sporting event in the world,” said Hu Xiang, 35, who travelled from his home in central China’s Hunan province after securing soccer and volleyball tickets.
The suffocating security precautions China has employed for the Olympics has dampened some of the excitement in the lead-up, with a few critics already dubbing the event the “No-Fun Games”.
More than 100,000 security personnel are patrolling Beijing, anti-missile barriers have been set up near the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, and the military and police are on guard around the country for any signs of trouble.
China has made no apologies for its crackdown, warning that terrorists from home and abroad are posing a massive threat to the Games.
But critics have accused Chinese authorities of exaggerating or fabricating threats so they have an excuse to silence their many critics.
Channel News Asia