The year 2008 had to be Beijing’s year. For the Chinese, it couldn’t be more auspicious. The number 8, “ba” in Mandarin, rhymes with “fa,“ a southern Chinese word meaning prosperity, modern China’s staunchest religion. Thus the Summer Olympic Games will open at eight minutes to eight o'clock on 8 August (the 8th month), 2008.
Prosperity is certainly something the country will need in order to pay back its massive spending spree on the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Impossible to calculate, there has been huge direct Olympics-related spending on the 30 new sports venues, the 2,000 new athletes’ apartments, the new subway and light railway lines, and the renovations to cater for disabled athletes for the Paralympics in September. The demolition and construction projects already underway have also had to be boosted by whatever muscle Beijing could throw at them to ensure they are completed in time.
Buildings that for years have been masked by green construction gauze are suddenly emerging from the dust like the phoenix, which in Chinese tradition is a symbol of heaven's favor. The cityscape has changed overnight, as gleaming new Soviet-esque government buildings rub shoulders with glitzy shopping malls drawn up by trendy Western architects. It’s an eclectic collection that is leaving many of its residents, who have grown up with Communism and the sacking of anything “cultural” during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), completely baffled.
It’s not just the newness that is giving Beijing a facelift. Many of the tourist spots, such as the immense Forbidden City and the ancient Confucius Temple, are being spruced up in time for the Games. If Beijing’s promise of cleaner air and a smoother commutes are met, it could be the best time to go and see them for decades.
With more than 1,000 new cars a day filling Beijing’s already snarled streets, getting the traffic moving is no small challenge, but officials are confident.
“Beijing will diligently fulfill its commitments and implement comprehensive transportation plans during the Olympic Games to provide safe, timely, reliable and convenient transportation services,” says the Ministry of Transport. Officials are encouraged to get on their bicycles, and private cars will be restricted during the Games.
Beijingers across the board are being urged, in the press and on public banners, to help make these Olympics spectacular, and show to the world what China’s made of. The city’s 67,000 taxi drivers have been “encouraged” to exchange the Mao Zedong good-luck trinkets and talismans, which hang from their rearview mirrors, for English text books and tapes, to help them communicate with the coming hordes. There are even threats of a test.
Citywide recruitment drives for Games volunteers have proved incredibly successful, garnering five times as many applicants as the 100,000 vacancies on offer. All headed up by "House of Flying Daggers" film director Zhang Yimou, who will direct the opening and closing ceremonies.
It’s not all about showing off the people, there’s some hiding, too. The homeless and the “undesirables” are already being cleared off the streets and sent either back to the countryside or to secretive camps, according to the group Human Rights in China.
Even more invisible, at the moment, are the people China is counting on.
China’s army of athletes, fresh from some of the toughest training camps and schools in the world, has the top medal haul of the Games in its sights.
The 2008 athletics force is unrecognizable from the one sent to the London Games of 60 years ago (1948), when all of China’s hopefuls were knocked out in the preliminary heats and the delegation had to borrow money to get home.
The country’s first gold medal came just 24 years ago, in Los Angeles. Since then, the tally has increased to five in 1988, in Seoul; 16 in 1992, in Barcelona; another 16 in 1996, in Atlanta; then a massive leap to 28 in the Sydney Games in 2000. In Athens, 2004, China’s gold medal tally of 32 was second only to the U.S. It would be a bold gamble to bet against the Chinese team this year.
The International Olympic Committee made a brave decision in 2001. It probably led to the greatest transformation of any host city that has held the Games to date, and it was almost certainly the most controversial. But when Zhang Yimou signals the curtain to rise on that special August date, he is likely to be signaling the start of one of the most spectacular.