Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 16 News List

A year before the games: Beijing builds and problems loom

In a country awash in political propaganda, one slogan posted around this city looks unusually convincing: "New Beijing, Great Olympics."

By Craig Simons  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Chinese workers build a grand stage for the up coming one-year milestone countdown party to the Beijing 2008 Olympic games at Tiananmen Square.

PHOTO: AFP

In a country awash in political propaganda, one slogan posted around this city looks unusually convincing: "New Beijing, Great Olympics."

On Wednesday, when the countdown clock marks one year until the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China will be on target to host arguably the most spectacular, competitive and expensive Games in history.

Beijing is spending a record US$34 billion to build and renovate 37 competition venues and construct hundreds of miles of new highways and subway lines.

Officials also have launched a drive to "civilize" the city by standardizing English and stamping out potentially off-putting habits including spitting and line cutting.

But growing pollution problems in China and Beijing's increasingly crowded streets have raised concerns. While the country's Communist Party governance may be adept at meeting schedules, officials may be unable to clear Beijing's air and prevent gridlock during the 16-day-long Games.

Beijing is often blanketed in smog from coal-burning power plants and millions of cars and trucks, many of which have poor environmental controls.

Pollutants, including ozone - which can harm athletic performance by lowering oxygen absorption, have become more concentrated in recent years.

A study of 15 large Asian cities released in January by the Asian Development Bank found Beijing suffered the dirtiest air, with 142 micrograms of pollution particles per cubic meter. That was five times New York City's average and more than seven times above the World Health Organization's target for large cities.

The US Olympic Committee is monitoring Beijing's air quality "because it has the potential to have a direct impact on (athletic) performance," said spokesman Darryl Siebel. The national sports organization has not issued any recommendations to US athletes and coaches.

To improve air quality during the Games, Beijing will force vehicles with substandard emissions off the roads, restrict production at factories in Beijing and surrounding areas and increase parkland, said Sun Weide, deputy director for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. He added that 28 million trees were planted in and around Beijing last year.

"Preparations for the Beijing Olympic Games are going very well and are on schedule," Sun said.

Chinese government reports estimate that the price tag for hosting the Games will reach US$34 billion, more than twice the cost of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Unlike Athens, where delays and cost overruns raised concerns that venues might not be ready on time, Beijing's authoritarian government has kept construction on schedule. The 91,000-seat National Stadium and all other venues will be completed by March, Sun said.

To smooth the way for as many as 1.5 million tourists expected to visit Beijing during the Olympics, Beijing is building a US$3.6 billion airport addition that will more than double its size.

Siebel said US Olympic officials are "very comfortable with where things stand in venue construction and other infrastructure and logistics."

Partly because China and Russia have improved their national sports programs since the Athens Games, the Beijing Olympics "will likely be the most competitive environment ever for an Olympic Games," he said.

"We think it will be a terrific opportunity and challenge."

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