BEIJING – All it takes is one step into this city’s brand-new, massive, futuristic airport to realize the world is about to witness the most grandiose Olympics ever staged, a $40 billion coming-out party for a nation desperate to establish itself as an economic and athletic superpower.

A seemingly-limitless army of smiling volunteers is on hand to greet and help visitors, part of a Herculean effort to transform the once-drab Chinese capital into a friendly, colorful tourist destination. Tens of thousands of red and yellow flower beds line the bustling streets, Olympic banners hang everywhere, and ornate sports-themed topiary decorates the Olympic Green, the epicenter of the competition, where the cutting-edge Bird’s Nest stadium and bubble-skinned aquatic center loom over enormous plazas soon to be packed with fans.

The festivities officially begin at precisely 8:08.08 p.m. (Beijing time) on Aug. 8, 2008 because eight is considered a lucky number in China. In fact, 16,400 Beijing couples applied to be married on this special day for the same reason. Beijing organizers are hoping good fortune will help deliver a pollution-free, protest-free, and drug-free Olympics, but like their sports hero, Liu Xiang, they face a daunting series of hurdles in the days ahead.

Despite drastic efforts to produce blue skies, which included the closing of factories and removal of more than a million cars from the city streets, the smog thickened on the eve of the Games. Despite demanding the Olympics be apolitical, the international media, and President George W. Bush, have taken the Chinese to task in recent days for their human rights breaches. Four activists were arrested Wednesday after attempting to hang Free Tibet banners from lampposts, two Japanese journalists were roughed up earlier in the week in Western China for reporting on a clash between police and Muslim minorities, and U.S. Olympic gold medal speedskater Joey Cheek, an activist for Darfur, was denied entry to China.

U.S. athletes have indicated they will keep politics out of the Games, but they made a powerful statement by selecting Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong as their flag bearer over more famous Olympians such as swimmers Michael Phelps and Dara Torres, or NBA star Kobe Bryant. Lomong, one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, was separated from his parents at gunpoint when he was 6, and wound up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for 10 years before going to the United States in 2001 as part of a program to relocate lost youth from war-torn Sudan. Lomong became a U.S. citizen 13 months ago, and has tried to raise awareness to the atrocities taking place in Darfur.

“This is the most exciting day ever in my life,” Lomong said, upon hearing of his selection. “The American flag means everything in my life – everything that describes me, coming from another country and going through all the stages that I have to become a U.S. citizen. This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American. Seeing my fellow Americans coming behind me (in the ceremony) and supporting me will be a great honor, the highest honor. I don’t even have the words to describe how happy I am.”

Among the other 201 nations’ flag bearers are Swiss tennis star Roger Federer, German NBA player Dirk Nowitzki, and Chinese basketball icon Yao Ming. The identity of the Olympic cauldron lighter remained a closely guarded secret Thursday night. It isn’t likely to be Yao or Liu because both carried the torch during the relay and traditionally, nobody carries the torch twice.

Security will be particularly tight for the Opening Ceremonies as 80 visiting heads of state, including President Bush, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, settle in for a three-and-a-half hour extravaganza that promises to be over-the-top, even by Olympic standards.

Set against the backdrop of ancient temples and dazzling skyscrapers, the ceremony will bridge nearly 5,000 years of Chinese history and feature 20,000 performers, kung fu, Peking Opera, acrobats, pandas and Terracotta Warriors. The show will end with 35,000 fireworks and photos of 2008 smiling faces from around the world projected onto the night sky.

Everything about this Olympics is big.

The Chinese even have more mascots than any other Olympic host. There are five Beibei the fish, JingJing the panda, HuanHuan the Olympic flame, YingYing the Tibetan antelope, and Nini the swallow. If you combine the first syllable of their names, it reads Beijing Huan Ying Ni, which translates to “Beijing Welcomes You.”

Speaking of big, NBC paid $900 million to own the rights to these politically charged Olympics, and the investment gave the network enough clout to tweak the schedule to make it prime-time friendly for the United States audience. Swimming and gymnastics were moved from evening to morning Beijing time so they can be shown between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern time.

That decision did not sit well with Australian swimming officials.

Head coach Alan Thompson said the International Olympic Committee was willing to hurt the sport by allowing the change to ensure Phelps’ quest for a record eight gold medals had a prime-time audience in the United States.

“In this day and age, loyalties are lacking in sport and often money talks too loudly,” Thompson said at a news conference Tuesday. “I think when it comes to issues like that, there are certain traditions that need to be followed in sport and (the IOC) should have ensured this didn’t happen.”

Phelps shrugged off the issue, saying: “It’s the Olympics, and it doesn’t matter what time they ask us to swim.”

NBC swimming announcer Rowdy Gaines, a former Olympian, agreed the scheduling controversy was no big deal.

“It might affect the times because it’s the morning and nobody’s used to swimming then, but everyone’s on the same playing field and truth is, nobody remembers times anyway,” he said. “It’s the Olympics and all that matters is who wins the medals.”

That is especially true of the Chinese team, which is under intense pressure to win golds and finish No. 1 in the medal tally. Beijing organizers believe a successful showing in the sports arenas will help erase stains in the political arena. Time will tell.

(c) 2008, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Olympics

AP-NY-08-07-08 0643EDT

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