INTERNATIONAL

Final countdown for the Olympics begins

Special Correspondent

Beijing: In the haze of a muggy Beijing morning, groups of fresh-faced young volunteers in blue and white shorts rehearse in the large plaza at the Olympic Centre. Around them loom the spectacular stadia that have been specially constructed for the Beijing Olympics 2008 — architectural marvels each one.

The main National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, will hold the opening and closing ceremonies and the finals of the football event; the Water Cube will hold the aquatic events; and the National Indoor Stadium will host the gymnastic and other indoor events.

“Magnificent!” bursts out volunteer Zhang Li Dong (21) in his newly-learnt English when asked what being a volunteer feels like. He is from Dalian and has been living for a month now with youngsters from other parts of the country. “It is not just the world that the Olympics will bring together, but China too.”

The Olympics start in exactly a month from today. The long preparations for the grand event that started in July 2001 are almost coming to an end for the Chinese organizers. Everything appears to be on song, with the venues now flooded with volunteers rehearsing their duties for the exciting days ahead. The 37 venues of the games, 31 in Beijing, are ready, and indeed, 46 international events have already been held in them. Over 90 per cent of the 7 million tickets have been sold in the country and abroad. In this fast-paced city, Olympic cheer pervades the atmosphere.

“The hosting of the Olympics is a century-old dream for us,” Sun Wei De, deputy director of the Beijing Committee of the Olympic Games told a group of visiting Indian journalists on Monday. “It is an important event for China and the world that we believe will promote the understanding of China’s 5000-year-old history and Beijing’s 3000-year-old history to the outside world.”

As much as its international dimension, it is the transformatory quality of the preparations for the Chinese people that the organisers here emphasise.

“The Olympics is not about making money, but reaching out to as many people as possible,” said Mr. Sun. “The preparations have promoted the economic and social progress of China, especially Beijing,” he added. It has “transformed” Beijing’s environment resulting in perceptibly cleaner air quality, he said, and millions of jobs have been created.

Beijing’s GDP in the last nine years has seen double digit growth, registering a 12.8 per cent growth last year alone. Per capita income in Beijing stood at $7000 last year, against a national average of $ 2000. Over $ 2 billion has been spent on improving Beijing’s infrastructure that will contribute to the city’s long-term development.

There is a special emphasis placed by the organisers on taking the Olympic message to children. “The campaign has gone to half-a-million elementary and secondary schools in China and reached out to 400 million school children,” said Mr. Sun. Under the Olympic Education Programme, students will be able to purchase tickets at the subsidised cost of between five and 10 yuan. The government has introduced a low-price ticketing policy, with about 58 per cent of the tickets priced below 100 yuan, making it affordable to the average Chinese.

Olympic venues will later be converted to cultural and sports facilities for China “amongst which will be 45 stand alone training venues,” said Mr. Sun.

The opening ceremony, and the manner in which the Olympic flame will be lit, is for the time being a closely guarded secret, a “surprise” Mr. Sun said with a laugh. “Civilisation and harmony” will be the theme of the opening ceremony.

Having invested so much into the games, the Chinese organisers are taking no chances with security. “We are working with the international community, Interpol, U.N. agencies and the previous hosts. We have drawn up 5,000 detailed security plans,” said Mr. Sun, adding: “Generally speaking, China is a safe country, and Beijing a safe city. We are confident of hosting a secure and safe Olympic Games.”

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