Beijing determined to show fresh face to the world

Philip Hersh
Chicago Tribune
A gymnast trains at the Shichahai Sports School in Beijing, China. The renowed school is undergoing a facelift for the 2008 Olympics. (Phil Hersh/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

BEIJING - The screech of saws mixed with the screams of tall, lean women spiking volleyballs. The pounding of hammers accented the slap-slap of sneakers on the teenage boxers jogging past scaffolding in a parking lot.

The chalk dust flying from young gymnasts' hands floated inside the gymnasium like the construction dust that escaped the protective green netting outside the building where the athletes were training.

That counterpoint of resolute effort in sports and construction at Beijing's renowned Shichahai Sports School, undergoing a facelift before its 50th anniversary in 2008, also is the underlying harmony of a city building toward the 2008 Olympic Games, determined to show a fresh face to the world.

"The Olympics is bringing improvement in the environment and equipment at our school," said badminton player Deng Xiao, 22, who has attended the select boarding school for 12 years. "For an athlete, the Olympics is a bigger room to express themselves in. For China and Beijing, it is a chance to develop the country and the city."

Film star Jet Li, known then only as a child named Li Lianjie, learned wushu, or martial arts, in the early 1970s at Shichahai, one of Beijing's eight elite sports schools. Four of China's 2004 Olympic champions, in gymnastics, volleyball, taekwondo and table tennis, began their sports development at the school, which calls itself "the cradle of world champions" and "the origin of Olympic talents" despite facilities that clearly are showing their age.

"For all Chinese, it is very exciting to have the Olympic Games, to show to all the world what we have achieved." said Liu Yan Bin, the school's vice principal and a former table tennis player. "For me, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics will be the most important moment of my life."

For China, the world's most populous nation, it should be a giant coming-out party (with the emphasis on giant), as the 1964 Olympics was for Japan and the 1988 Games for South Korea. For Beijing, the countdown to Aug. 8, 2008, increased the already frenetic pace of transformation of this city with 15.3 million people and seemingly as many construction sites.

Hammers and saws and cranes and backhoes run seven days a week, day and night, so there is little danger Beijing will scramble to meet its Olympic construction deadlines the way Athens did in 2004.

Two years ago the International Olympic Committee urged the Chinese to slow the pace of construction to manage cash flow better.

So Beijing backed off its promise to have all 31 of the city's venues (11 new, the others renovated or modified) ready by 2006 and settled for a completion date by the end of 2007.

Supports for the latticework superstructure of the 91,000-seat Olympic Stadium came off a few weeks ago, making the stadium's "Bird's Nest" concept clearly visible. A few hundred yards to the west, workers have been installing the blue skin of the "Water Cube" aquatics center, among the venues that will blend striking architecture with high-tech, as the skin will capture energy used to warm the pools.

The attractive but comparatively mundane softball stadium, the first new venue to be completed, was used for the quadrennial World Softball Championships this summer.

Chinese officials also have tried to slow down fervent expectations, engendered by continuously rising nationalism and a best-ever performance in Athens, that their athletes could topple the United States as the Olympic Games superpower. China won only three fewer gold medals - but 40 fewer overall medals - than the United States in 2004.

"Our aim is not to leave the 2008 Olympic Games with the most medals but to have a better level in many of our sports," Shichahai's Liu said.

"China is not at the same level as America in sports like basketball, swimming and track. For track, we only have (Olympic hurdles champion) Liu Xiang but America has many top stars."

China's women did rise to world leadership in swimming and distance running in the mid-1990s, but that achievement was tainted by both doping and accusations that the distance runners, conditioned to "eat bitterness," were subjected to a dehumanizing and brutal training regime. Since then, Chinese women have been virtually non-factors in both sports, removing a lightning rod for criticism that might have scuttled their 2008 Olympic bid.

After visiting Shichahai last November, British Olympic champion and former IOC member Matthew Pinsent alleged young gymnasts were being abused, calling what he saw a "disturbing experience." Pinsent, who had criticized the IOC's 2001 decision to award the Olympics to Beijing, said in a BBC report he observed gymnasts in obvious pain and at least one boy who admitted to a translator that a coach had beaten him.

Liu Hong Bin, the school's deputy director, told BBC Sport that training was deliberately hard to toughen up the children and that some parents asked that corporal punishment be used.

IOC President Jacques Rogge said cultural differences could have affected Pinsent's perceptions, noting Britain had used corporal punishment in its schools until the 1970s. Rogge nevertheless asked Chinese Olympic authorities about the situation and was told what Pinsent saw was an isolated incident out of line with normal training practices in China.

A journalist visiting the school earlier this month saw a different atmosphere. There were determined but smiling 7-year-old gymnasts, taekwondo athletes laughing as they played an elimination game in a warm-up exercise and badminton players with bemused expressions of delighted disbelief after a heated rally that lasted several minutes.

Shichahai is "an open window of Beijing," says the school's brochure.

China promised openness in its successful Olympic bid, but the issue of what its government allows journalists to see remains a hotly debated subject.

Last month China announced new restrictions on the distribution of foreign news by international news organizations, banning news reports that "undermine national unity" or disrupt "economic and social order." Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee President Liu Qi, a member of China's ruling politburo, told 200 media at a world press briefing the country would "respect its commitments made in the bid process."

BOCOG media operations director Sun Weijia said foreign journalists would be able to travel anywhere in China.

In Beijing movement is restricted by traffic that strangles the city at all hours.

After buses taking journalists on a venue tour needed more than an hour to cover five miles south to the city center from the Olympic Green - site of the stadium, swimming pool, gymnastics arena and seven other venues - chagrined BOCOG officials arranged to have the police block off roads so the visiting media would not be inconvenienced on the next legs of their trip.

No one doubts the Chinese government will take similar measures to make traffic flow during the Olympics, just as Athens did, almost miraculously, in 2004. Olympic lanes and a new subway line are among Beijing's solutions.

"Nobody believed that Athens could do it," IOC Vice President Gunilla Lindberg of Sweden said in Beijing. "The Chinese people are suffering a lot with so many new cars on the street, and everyone wants better public transportation."

Lindberg is more concerned about the environment. A combination of industrial pollution, automobile exhaust and construction dust make Beijing's air quality among the worst in the world. On top of that, the city often experiences stifling humidity during the Aug. 8-24 period when the Olympics will take place.

Three U.S. athletes who competed in Beijing this August, track sprinter Alexandria Anderson of Chicago, middle distance runner Andrew Bumbalough of Nashville and softball pitcher Cat Osterman of Houston, all were aware of the pollution but didn't think it affected their performances.

Anderson finished fifth in the 100 meters and won a gold medal on the 400 relay at the world junior championships. Bumbalough was 10th in the 1,500. Osterman had a 6-0 record, including a one-hit shutout in the final, as she pitched the United States to the world title.

"As soon as you took your first breath, you could tell something wasn't normal," Bumbalough said. "But it wasn't an issue in my racing. Maybe if I was there for a longer period of time, it would be."

Athletes on both teams were given surgical-style masks, designed to filter some polluting particles as well as germs, for discretionary use.

"The pollution is evident, but for the most part it wasn't as bad as everyone made it out to be," Osterman said. "By no means did it hinder us."

"It was hard to breathe at first, especially for runners with asthma like me," Anderson said. "It was really humid, and the fog and smog made it worse. After a while, I got accustomed to it, but I hope things will be better during the Olympics."

Beijing is expected to shut down construction projects at least a month before the Olympics and to stop almost all industrial activity during the Games.

"You always have concerns, but I am very confident they have solutions to the traffic and air quality issues," said Gilbert Felli, the IOC's Olympic Games executive director. "When they tell you they are going to do something, they do it."

While declining to say what measures will be implemented during the Olympics, BOCOG Vice President Jiang Xiaoyu ticked off from memory an impressive list of statistics related to Beijing's creating more green areas, using natural gas instead of coal and enforcing stricter vehicle emission standards than anywhere else in China. Jiang said the city had 100 "blue sky" days in 1998 and 234 in 2005.

There were five blue sky days last week, when the world press briefing took place. A day after the briefing ended, the sun was vainly trying to emerge though the brown-gray pall that had returned to enshroud the city.

No wonder there was speculation in informed quarters that Chinese officials had reduced industrial production while the media was in town.

"They have made a lot of progress, but they have to speed up the process because we have a lot of (pre-Olympic) test events coming up," Lindberg said.

"Of course, it's not easy to change this big city from one day to another."

They are going at it hammer and tongs, making melody of apparent cacophony, blending sport and construction into a composition of Olympian proportions.





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