On the eve of their national coming out party, almost everyone in Beijing seemed to be practicing something.
At the National Indoor Stadium, Chinese gymnasts tumbled and did flips, much to the delight of the 200 or so volunteers who sat together in the stands and cheered every move they made.
In the square outside the iconic Bird's Nest stadium, hundreds of white-gloved Chinese soldiers practiced their own kind of sport, never missing a stride while marching stiffly in suffocating heat as their officers barked orders.
And almost everywhere around the Olympic Green, it seemed, Chinese eager to show off their skills and their country were practicing their English.
For most, the phrases didn't come easy.
"Please, hello," one woman said, handing a visitor a camera to take her picture outside the Bird's Nest. "Thank you, sorry."
Luckily, no Olympic medals will be at stake in the foreign language competition, though golds could be given out for effort. And, truthfully, the English was often better than the few snippets of Mandarin that a few Western visitors dared to practice themselves.
More importantly to the Chinese, perhaps, it almost always came with a smile, even when the message wasn't anything to smile about.
"Sorry, is forbidden," an Army sentry said, a smile fixed on his face as he refused entry to the Bird's Nest, where still more practice was taking place for an opening ceremony that many Chinese thought would never come but was now only hours away.
Nothing left to chance
Seven years and untold billions of dollars in the making, the most grandiose of all Olympics opens Friday with what, by all accounts, figures to be the most grandiose of all opening ceremonies. And China has seemingly left nothing to chance in preparing an Olympics for the ages.
From the huge new glass-and-steel airport that seems to have everything but passengers to the instant forest that sprouted around the Olympic green, everything about these games screams overkill. That includes the massive contingent of mostly young Olympic volunteers, who scurry around in such numbers that any question usually draws five or six of them eager to volunteer an answer.
Most will never see an event themselves, unless they draw a coveted assignment inside a venue. But it's both a chance to try out their English, get a colorful blue and white shirt, and show pride in what their country has done.
"It's like a promotion," said Eric Yang, a 19-year-old marketing student. "A grand promotion is what it is."
Yang and fellow volunteer Zeng Hao stood on a busy street corner down the street from the main Olympic area Wednesday talking about what the games means to their country. Ninety percent of Chinese, they estimated, supported the games and they themselves thought it would lead to more openness in the country.
‘Weather is always bad’
Their only concern was the blanket of smog that seemed to settle even deeper into the city as the day went on.
"We hope not but the weather is always bad in Beijing in the summer," Yang said. "It's beyond our control."
So far it's proven to be just that, even after authorities shut down factories by the hundreds and banned many vehicles from the capital. A few days before swimmers start to swim and runners begin to run, it looked like a bad day in Los Angeles, and efforts to clean the skies seem to depend now on whether Mother Nature will favor the Olympics with a storm of two.
Still, the decision of four American cyclists to arrive at the Beijing airport wearing protective masks so insulted the Chinese that they were forced to issue an apology saying they hadn't meant to offend anybody, but were merely trying to breath.
Smog isn't the only problem China is dealing with as the countdown clock ticks off the final hours before the games begin. Just before heading to Beijing for the opening ceremony, U.S. President George W. Bush issued his most critical condemnation of China's human rights policy, while four activists evaded security and climbed electrical poles to unfurl pro-Tibet banners outside the national stadium.
The expected tourist boom, meanwhile, hasn't materialized, with the newspaper Jinghua Shibao reporting that rents have been slashed in half for apartments near Olympic venues because visitors are finding plenty of hotel rooms available.
But if the mood around the main Olympic area in Beijing was any indication, the Chinese are not only taking great interest, but great pride, in the games. They have good reason to, because China is not only determined to put on a show for the world, but to claim bragging rights on the medal stand.
While taxis whizzed around them, a family of four on two bicycles stopped before a hedge carved in the shape of the Olympic rings, fiddling with a camera before the mother and children posed before it and the father took their picture.
At the McDonald's inside the Olympic press center, where workers had spent weeks practicing preparing lattes and hamburgers for thousands of journalists, a woman waved a small Chinese flag to signal customers to a cash register. And down the street dozens of curious Chinese gathered around a group of Olympic pin traders displaying their wares.
"The Chinese seem to be pretty open to this thing," said Doug Todd, a San Diego emergency room physician who has traded pins at every Olympics since 1984. "The panda pins seem to be especially popular here."
The mood even extended to the highways, where on the road leading into the Olympic green, Beijing's finest had posted their own greeting on a roadway sign: "Smiling Beijing Traffic Police."