Under blue skies, Beijing dazzled as Olympic host
Gloomy forecasts of smog, terrorism, and rude hosts all but evaporated during the 17-day sports extravaganza, though concern remained about human rights.
Choking pollution. Terrorist plots. Jeering Chinese fans.Skip to next paragraph
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These are just some of the gloomier forecasts for the Olympics that ended Sunday – forecasts that all but evaporated in unexpectedly blue skies over Beijing. Instead, the world watched a 17-day sports extravaganza that delivered drama, passion, and medals with a dash of controversy, but not the strong political undertow that some had predicted.
Fans behaved themselves and a security blanket kept out saboteurs. Only a smattering of athletes tested positive for banned substances. Most visitors found decent food, lodgings, and entertainment, even if the nightly carnival spirit of previous Summer Games was missed. Traffic flowed. Olympic venues dazzled. Gold medals fell to China at a breathless clip, sealing its sporting rise.
One prediction that did ring true was that China refused to allow protests, contrary to its past pledges. Domestic critics were silenced beforehand or snared by catch-22 rules on protest permits. Foreign activists seeking to publicize the cause of Tibet pulled off symbolic stunts that few spectators noticed.
Curbs on foreign media were partially lifted, but critical websites and foreign radio broadcasts remained blocked and Tibetan areas of China were off-limits to reporters. Far from improving human rights in the run-up to the Games, as promised, China was accused by international rights watchdogs of tightening political controls and harassing free-speech activists. The International Olympics Committee did little to enforce China's earlier pledges.
But for a proud nation that has waited seven years for this moment in the spotlight, such criticisms are unlikely to tarnish the overall success of the Games, or the sense that China’s sporting achievements have been commensurate with its display of modern urbanity and economic might.
“In terms of sports, it was a really high level. Look at the performances in track and field and many other events. They were really fine,” says Ren Hai, director of the Olympics Studies Center at Beijing Sports University.
“This was the first time that Beijing has held such an event … according to an international standard. There were many things that were new for China learn.”
That learning extended to Chinese citizens who were asked to act with greater civility and friendliness when the world showed up at their doorstep. Authorities in Beijing launched campaigns to minimize spitting, littering, and queue jumping, while promoting sportsmanship and cheering for one's team without belittling opponents.
For the Olympics, tens of thousands of young volunteers were recruited to guide visitors smoothly from point A to B. Taxi drivers in Beijing donned new uniforms and learned to speak some English phrases, however haltingly.
These campaigns paid off during the Olympics as levels of public civility improved, says Sha Lianxiang, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing who tracks attitudes on the subject. She says most local residents support continued government action on antisocial behavior after the athletes and spectators have packed up and left.