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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Under blue skies, Beijing dazzled as Olympic host

August 26, 2008

Gloomy forecasts of smog, terrorism, and rude hosts all but
evaporated during the 17-day sports extravaganza, though concern
remained about human rights.
Simon Montlake, Correspondent
Christian Science Monitor
August 24, 2008 edition

Beijing -- 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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