Olympics: 100 days out, new challenges for Beijing Games

Agence France-Presse

BEIJING--With 100 days to go, Beijing's ability to stage a great Olympics in August is facing renewed challenges in the aftermath of the torch relay fiasco.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge, in Beijing earlier this month, pulled no punches when he said events had descended into "crisis."

But the optimistic IOC chief urged athletes to "keep the faith" and come to Beijing anyway because he believed that organizers, overcoming one hurdle after another, would deliver on their promise to deliver an "excellent" Games.

China's leaders views the Olympics as a platform to show off the country's "peaceful rise" onto the world stage as a responsible big power.

They have spent more than $40 billion laying out new venues, including the cutting edge "Water Cube" for swimming and the unparalleled "Bird's Nest" main stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place.

"We have been preparing for seven years," said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizers. "Everything is in place. It is going to be successful."

Both Rogge and Sun spoke in early April, as Beijing passed through the darkest days of Olympic preparations since the city won the right to host the Games seven years ago.

The so-called "journey of harmony" torch relay ground to a halt in London and Paris amid protests by groups opposed to China's crackdown on unrest in Tibet as well as by human rights and religious freedom campaigners, and activists opposed to the Asian giant's role in the Darfur humanitarian crisis.

The response to the relay has sparked a nationalist backlash in China directed at some foreign countries and Western journalists -- some of whom have received death threats.

"The most worrying thing is the way the protests overseas have fed into nationalism back home," said Brian Bridges, a politics and sports analyst at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Gripped by angry nationalism, China has apparently removed its welcome mat for at least some visitors by making visa applications much tougher in the run-up to the Games.

The national pride has also been hurt by threats from world leaders not to attend the opening ceremony. Some, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have yet to make up their minds.

Diplomats in Beijing say cooperation projects with the Chinese government are now harder to manage than before.

"Everything is tougher. They are very touchy," said a diplomat who asked not to be named.

China is also jittery over terrorism, after police said they had uncovered plots targeting athletes, journalists and tourists during the August 8-24 Olympics.

The terrorist gangs were allegedly operating in northwest China's Xinjiang region, which borders Central Asia and has a strong Muslim population of Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighurs.

The terrorism fears were ratcheted up on Friday, when Interpol warned that China must be prepared for a possible Al-Qaeda attack on the Olympics, as well as a potentially violent disruption from pro-Tibet protesters.

"We must be prepared for the possibility that Al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group will attempt to launch a deadly terrorist attack at these Olympics," Interpol chief Ronald Noble told an international conference on security for the Games.

Other factors appear to have contributed to a change in the air in Beijing as the Games approach, replacing an atmosphere of excitement with one of gloom and suspicion.

Earlier this year, Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg dropped out of his role as advisor to the opening and closing ceremonies over China's link to the government of Sudan, blamed for genocide in its western province of Darfur.

Then came the jailing of civil rights defender Hu Jia, which was denounced by critics of the communist party leadership as evidence of a crackdown on free speech ahead of the Games.

Another black mark for China came when marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie said he was not prepared to "commit suicide" by taking part in the event in Beijing's polluted air.

China has assured the 10,500 athletes coming to the Games that air quality will be acceptable and has drawn up a series of measures to honor its promise, including shutting factories and curbing traffic.

But the government has been unable to meet its pledge to offer unfettered access to the country to reporters covering the Games. Tibet and areas surrounding the Himalayan region still remain off limits to journalists.

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