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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.

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“The Beijing Olympics is an opportunity for Chinese people to know themselves, to improve themselves and even to reform themselves,” she writes in an email.

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The friendliness has impressed first-time visitors to Beijing. “People here are really, really nice. Everyone wants to help you. It seems as if the government has told people to help tourists. It wasn’t like this in Shanghai,” says Carol Montpart, a graphic designer from Barcelona.

Some spectators grumbled at the lack of proper food inside Olympic venues, as well as long, if orderly, lines for refreshments. Smiling volunteers who were supposedly vetted for English language skills sometimes stumbled over simple requests.

In recent months, Chinese authorities had warned that domestic terrorist groups could strike during the Games. None did in Beijing or any of the other six Olympics cities, but Islamic separatists in western China were alleged to be behind a spate of lethal attacks there. The emphasis on securing the events led organizers to fence off the Olympics Green and require day passes to visit its attractions.

Perhaps the biggest fear voiced before the Games was that persistent air pollution in Beijing would ruin the spectacle and hamper athletes’ performance. As a result, some US athletes arrived in Beijing sporting customized facemasks. Earlier this year, Haile Gebrselassie, the record holder from Ethiopia, citing sensitivity to smog, announced he would not run in the men’s marathon. Smog hung over the opening ceremony on Aug. 8.

But a two-month stoppage at construction sites and polluting factories, along with severe traffic restrictions, eventually managed to shift the noxious haze from the city. As summer rains gave way to blue skies, pollution indices dropped to almost unheard-of lows. Last week, Mr. Gebrselassie said he regretted dropping out of the marathon, as he hadn’t expected such clear weather. He came in sixth in the race in which he did participate, the men's 10,000-meter.

One sour note for China in recent days has been allegations that several of its female gymnasts, which took gold in the team competition, were underage. The International Gymnastics Federation has said it is investigating apparent discrepancies in the records of the gold medalists’ birthdates. Another disappointment for China was that its great hope for track and field gold, hurdler Liu Xiang, pulled out with an injury.

The Games yielded plenty of heroic achievements, too, from the dazzling opening ceremonies to Michael Phelps’ gold-medal haul in the pool to Usain Bolt’s lightning dashes on the track. The pressure is now on London, the host of the next Summer Olympics, to match Beijing’s grandeur.