Swimmer Michael Phelps may collect more gold medals than all but a handful of countries. Host China, spurred by wildly enthusiastic crowds, may leapfrog the United States and Russia and become the Olympic power. And some tiny gymnast, muscular sprinter or leggy volleyballer undoubtedly will emerge from obscurity to become the face of the XXIX Olympiad.
But when the much-anticipated Beijing Games open Friday, it appears increasingly likely that the performances of the world’s finest athletes will be overshadowed by the aims and ambitions of the host nation.
What to expect in Beijing Games, in the athletic venues and off
When more than 10,000 athletes from a record 205 countries march into the Beijing National Stadium for Friday night’s opening ceremony, the real drama and most significant questions - questions that, like the capital city’s thick smog, have hung unpleasantly in the air in the Olympic lead-up - will concern China.
“Certainly, the issues that are playing out on the world stage have taken precedence over the Games and the competition in the Games,” said Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Will the particulate-thick pollution in a city of 17 million residents and 4.5 million cars allow athletes, especially distance runners and bikers, to perform at their peaks? Will protests by Tibetan nationalists, fringe religious groups or human-rights activists be tolerated? Will the Communist government allow the 12,000 journalists to report and file stories and photos without censorship as it promised when the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the 2008 Games seven years ago?
More important, will China’s official debut as a major player on the world stage generate deeper international resentments, or will it instead help foster a more understanding spirit, one that embodies the Beijing Games’ motto: “One World. One Dream”?
In order to showcase their remarkably rapid transformation from Third World to modern industrial giant, the Chinese have poured years of effort and an estimated $47 billion into staging their first Olympics.
Hundreds of arenas, stadiums, training centers, hotels, and media facilities have arisen in Beijing and the five cities that will host events. The city’s transportation infrastructure has been improved on a scale befitting a modern dynasty, with broad, new highways; a subway system that has doubled in size; and a new airport terminal that stretches 1.8 miles from end to end.
Those enormous emotional and financial investments may help explain why China’s leaders have been hypersensitive about international criticism of their human-rights record, their handling of the torch relay, and their treatment of early-arriving journalists. (Live broadcasts will be limited from Tiananmen Square, and access to some Web sites has been blocked.)
In many ways, the manner in which these Games play out - or at least the perception of how they transpire - could shape China’s dealings with the wider world far into the future.
“If the Chinese believe that the Olympics failed or were badly tarnished because of foreign actions - whether demonstrations or media coverage - China’s reaction will be sharply negative,” Lee Sands, managing director of the Sierra Asia Partners (headquarters in Beijing), wrote last week in the China Business Review.
The answers, of course, will be revealed in the days after the massive opening ceremony, 20,000 performers entertaining a worldwide TV audience and an on-site crowd that is expected to include President Bush and other leaders. The ceremony is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. in Beijing on Aug. 8 (08/08/08). Chinese numerologists suggest the No. 8 can bring good luck.
In 37 new or refurbished venues, athletes will be vying for medals in 302 events. Those facilities will be overflowing with charged-up Chinese residents - an estimated 2.5 million of whom will be descending on the capital city - eager to see their athletes succeed.
Organizers predict that for the first time, every ticket will be sold. Last week, the sale of the final allotment of the seven million tickets triggered a chaotic stampede in Beijing.
That national enthusiasm stands in sharp contrast to the ennui of the Greek populace in 2004. Organizers for the Athens Olympics sold just two-thirds of the available 5.3 million tickets, and all but the most noteworthy events took place before sparse crowds.
Those Chinese fans, of course, will be most frenzied about table tennis and diving, two sports China should dominate. The arena for table tennis, the nation’s most popular sport, will seat close to 20,000.
Chinese Olympians such as hurdler Lu Xiang, diver Guo Jingjing and gymnast Yang Wei are already national heroes. Yang leads a men’s gymnastics team that is a heavy gold-medal favorite, especially now that American Paul Hamm, the 2004 overall gold-medalist, has withdrawn with medical issues.
China’s women gymnasts figure to battle a powerful U.S. team led by Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson.
That China-U.S. gymnastics war will be one of the centerpieces of NBC’s unprecedented 3,600 hours of coverage on seven channels and its Web site, nbcolympics.com. That’s 1,000-plus more hours than were televised in the last 12 Summer Games combined. Along with swimming and beach volleyball, gymnastics will be broadcast live to U.S. audiences, necessitating morning events in a city 12 hours ahead of Philadelphia time.
“This is perhaps the most exciting Games we’ve ever broadcast,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics.
The Americans, who won the overall medals race at the last three Summer Games, again will field a formidable team despite total expenditures that USOC president Peter Ueberroth said ranked “fifth or sixth” among all national teams.
Phelps, the pterodactyl-spanned Baltimorean who captured six golds in 2004 and hopes to eclipse Mark Spitz’s record by winning two more in China, will anchor what might be the greatest swim team ever assembled.
The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams also will be favorites. The men, coached by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and including NBA stars like LeBron James and Lower Merion High product Kobe Bryant, will seek to put the U.S. back atop the medals podium after its disappointment at Athens in 2004.
As always, the Americans will have a potent track and field team, though their dominance in the sprints will be seriously challenged by Jamaica’s spectacular duo of Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell and by the leg injury that U.S. star Tyson Gay suffered at the trials last month.
Distance runners have expressed serious concerns about the Beijing pollution. Short-term dips aside, China’s industrial growth in the last decade rose like the pole-vault record. The number of cars on Beijing’s streets has tripled in the last eight years, from 1.5 million to 4.5 million.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘Why the hell did you give the Games to Beijing in 2001?’ ” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said earlier this year. “Well the (pollution) situation in 2001, according to the World Health Organization’s standards, was not a problem.”
The U.S. women’s gymnastics team should be spectacular, with Johnson, a 16-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, the choice to take the overall gold medal.
But the real athletic focus will be on the competition between the Americans and Chinese and whether China’s long-term plan to produce a slew of Olympic champions by 2008 has been fully realized.
“They have infused large amounts of resources behind their sports programs,” said Steve Roush, the USOC’s director of sports performance. “They’ve developed incredible Olympic pipelines - 2008 is just the beginning.
“As a result, China, Russia and the United States will all vie for the top gold-medal and overall-medal count,” Roush said. “I think that lends itself to some incredible competition.”
Locally, equestrian Phillip Dutton, breaststroker Brendan Hansen, and men’s and women’s rowing teams peppered with Philadelphia-area rowers and coaches should all contend for Olympic gold.
Among the other American athletes with Philadelphia-area ties are Haddonfield runner Erin Donohue in the 1,500 meters; Villanova grad Jen Rhines in the women’s 5,000; Penn State gymnast Kevin Tan; soccer team member Carli Lloyd of Delran; and several members of the U.S. women’s field hockey team - Kate Barber of Unionville High, Lauren Crandall of Central Bucks East, Jesse Gey of Christopher Dock, and Rachel Dawson of Eastern.
Much of the anticipation for these Games is the realization that the Olympics will be entering a Forbidden City, a virgin territory of massive population and geography, of unique food, customs and art.
Also, China’s burgeoning economy and its population of 1.3 billion have been aphrodisiacs to the world’s businesses, all of whom seem eager to introduce themselves and their products to the vast market.
Finally, among the historic elements of these Games will be the most stringent drug testing ever. For a first time, competitors’ blood will be subject to testing along with their urine.
John Fahey, the new president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, has hinted that it might finally be possible to detect human growth hormone in the tests.
The Chinese have pledged to field a clean team, lest it besmirch the honor of the nation, and leaders will employ thousands of soldiers and police to control the situation, hoping the world sees nothing controversial.
After joking with reporters Friday that his nation’s table-tennis roster is full, not allowing him to compete in the Games, the Associated Press reported that Chinese President Hu Jintao said: “By hosting the Beijing Games, we will show the world that the Chinese people are a peace-loving nation.”