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.

Grace Liang/Reuters
Spectators wait in Tiananmen square for the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Choking pollution. Terrorist plots. Jeering Chinese fans.

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.

“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.

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.

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