[15 August 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
BEIJING—A week into the Summer Games, athletes brim with praise for the Olympics venues, rain has mercifully cleared the skies of smog and China beams at its success even as it deflects charges of “phony spectators” and other fakery at the games.
Athletes at marquee Olympic events like swimming, basketball and track and field have played to arenas full of enthusiastic fans, but rows of forlorn empty seats look down at a surprising number of venues, including tennis and field hockey.
“The games have been proceeding pretty smoothly,” said Wang Wei, vice president and spokesperson for the Beijing Olympic organizers.
China has reason for pride at how the 29th Olympic Games are unfolding, according to athletes and several International Olympic Committee members. They laud the world-class facilities, precision organization and the hospitality of armies of Chinese volunteers.
“The organization and everything else . . . is just unreal. The accommodation, the food is lovely,” said Kenny Egan, an Irish light heavyweight bathed in sweat after a bout in the boxing arena. “It’s absolutely super.”
At the new beach volleyball stadium, loud speakers pump out “Put Your Hands Up in the Air!” and an animator urges spectators to do the Mexican Wave as resting Austrian women’s volleyballer Doris Schwaiger gushes about the games.
“The organization is perfect,” the 23-year-old spiker said. “I haven’t found anything that is not okay.”
Occasionally heavy rains, slight winds and government-mandated anti-pollution measures that have cleared Beijing’s streets of much of its traffic have lessened the smog that normally cloaks the capital. Friday was the clearest day of the games with a cloudless skies and vistas of the western hills on Beijing’s outskirts.
A key test of Beijing’s air quality will come this weekend with several endurance events. On Sunday, tens of thousands of Chinese and foreign spectators will fill city streets for the women’s marathon. Also occurring this weekend are the two-day women’s heptathlon and the men’s 10,000 meter final.
Heat and humidity have sapped the strength of some athletes, but air quality has stayed well within the range of what the International Olympic Committee considers safe air.
“The recent several days have had very good conditions indeed,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the IOC’s chief medical officer.
Faced with partially empty arenas, authorities have mobilized armies of volunteers to attend Olympic events, despite the fact that all seven million tickets to the Summer Games were sold out or distributed to national Olympic committees.
Some of the Chinese spectators appear lost at the intricacies of the events they watch as they sit in blocks in stands, wearing colored T-shirts and waving flags.
IOC member Kai Holm, a Dane, called them “phony spectators.”
“They sit around in small groups, some in yellow shirts, some in red shirts,” Holm said. “They do not understand the rules of the game they cheer. It’s a little bit funny.”
Holm said leaders tell volunteers when to cheer: “They are applauding by signs.”
Police look the other way at rampant ticket selling and scalping unfolding near some of the Olympic venues, such as the Workers’ Stadium that is hosting soccer matches and the nearby Workers’ Gymnasium that hosts boxing.
“If we were dealers, we could make an extreme profit,” said Tamas Balazs, a Hungarian who was trying to get rid of field hockey and boxing tickets that he said a travel agency back in Budapest required that he buy as part of a package.
Holm said scalpers were pulling in $2,000 to $3,000 per ticket for major events at the aquatics center, where U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps was on a gold medal binge.
Charges of fakery have dogged China since the opening ceremonies of the games. Earlier in the week, China acknowledged that the real singer of the song “Ode to the Motherland” at the ceremony was a girl with bad teeth and not pretty enough, so they put on an angelic 9-year-old to lip-synch the song.
China also said some of the “live” fireworks shown on television coverage of the opening games were actually computer-generated images.
On Friday, China acknowledged that children clad in ethnic costume who carried the Chinese flag at the ceremony were not actually from any of China’s 56 minority ethnic groups.
Wang, the games spokesman, dismissed criticism of the fakery, saying the children were “actors and actresses and performers.”
“It is typical for Chinese performers to wear different apparel from different ethnic groups. There is nothing special about it,” Wang said at a news briefing. “They will wear different apparel to signify people are friendly and happy together.”
China’s majority Han Chinese, who make up about 92 percent of the nation’s 1.3 billion people, have poor relations with some of the minority groups, particularly Tibetans and Uighurs, a restive Muslim minority in China’s far west, which has been roiled by separatist violence.
A bright aspect of the games has been the surprising lack of positive doping tests. Medals were taken away Friday from a Vietnamese gymnast and a North Korean medalist in shooting who failed doping tests. They are only the second and third athletes to fail doping tests during the games.
The low number “is a feature of increased awareness in the sports population that doping is unacceptable,” Ljungqvist said.
A coach of a losing Polish swimmer cast aspersions earlier this week on the achievement of a Chinese swimmer in the women’s 200-meter butterfly, suggesting her smashing of a world record by a whopping 1.22 seconds was “not rational.”
Pan Jiazhang, the coach of Chinese swimmer Liu Zige, strongly defended Liu and China’s swimming program, which was dogged by doping allegations in the 1990s.
“Look at how many times our swimmers have been tested, I assure you that this is a clean team,” Pan was quoted in the state-run China Daily as saying.
Among the few people who are grumpy at the games are some foreign journalists, who have sparred daily with IOC and Beijing organizing committee spokesmen about incidents of police violence against journalists and over whether China has broken commitments it made on media freedom and human rights to win the right in 2001 to host this year’s games.