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Pardon the Dust: Beijing Puts Its Games Face On

October 10, 2006|Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

BEIJING — The screech of saws mixes with the screams of tall, lean women spiking volleyballs. The pounding of hammers accents the sound of teenage boxers slapping pavement as they jog past scaffolding in a parking lot. Chalk dust flies from the hands of young gymnasts training inside just as the construction dust rises outside.

That counterpoint of resolute effort in both sports and construction at Beijing's renowned Shichahai Sports School, undergoing a face-lift before its 50th anniversary in 2008, underscores the harmony of a city building toward the 2008 Olympics, 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 -- one of eight in the city -- 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."

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 clearly 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, as the 1964 Summer Olympics was for Japan and the 1988 Summer Games were for South Korea. For Beijing, the countdown to Aug. 8, 2008, has increased the already frenetic pace of transformation in this city of 15.3 million people and seemingly as many construction sites.

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

Two years ago, the International Olympic Committee actually 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 last month, 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 high-tech "Water Cube" aquatics center.

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

China's women did rise to world leadership in swimming and distance running in the mid-1990s, but that emergence 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 the nation's 2008 Olympic bid.

But after visiting Shichahai last November, Matthew Pinsent, British Olympic champion and former IOC member, alleged that 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 that he'd observed gymnasts in obvious pain and at least one boy who told a translator that he had been beaten by a coach.

Liu Hong Bin, the school's deputy director, told BBC Sport that training was deliberately hard in order 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, but nevertheless he asked Chinese Olympic authorities about the situation and was told what Pinsent had seen was an isolated incident out of line with normal training practices in China.

A journalist visiting the school recently saw a different atmosphere: determined but smiling 7-year-old gymnasts, taekwondo athletes laughing as they warmed up and badminton players with bemused expressions after a heated rally lasted several minutes.

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

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

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