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Bidding Its Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everywhere in Beijing are signs that this is it, the time for Beijing to take its place on the world stage, a place the Chinese fervently believe is rightfully theirs.

Already, Beijing’s symbol of the 2008 Olympic Games, a stylized tai chi action figure, is emblazoned seemingly everywhere--on posters, on highway monuments, even in neon lights on the facades of large buildings. The Olympics are topic No. 1 in the schools, in the streets, in the bars, the stores, the taxicabs, even the Peking duck restaurants.

Beijing’s desire to beat Paris and Toronto in its bid to host the 2008 Olympics has become a craving, almost an obsession, the manifestation of what China experts call a deep-rooted insecurity about this nation’s place in the world.

The only salve is external validation--that is, an endorsement from outside that China is indeed deserving of the Games.

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“There isn’t another country in the world that cares more about how the rest of the world sees it than China,” said Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley and a longtime China observer.

As China specialist Robert Ross of Boston College put it, a victory would serve as irrefutable proof to the Chinese that China is “on par with any country in the world and a leader, a player.”

So the question on the eve of what will surely be one of the momentous elections in Olympic history, is this: Is the world ready, finally, to go to Beijing?

There are a host of complexities for the International Olympic Committee to consider in the first Summer Games to be awarded since the 1999 Salt Lake City corruption scandal.

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Along with Beijing, Paris and Toronto, also on the July 13 IOC ballot but given little chance of winning are Osaka, Japan, and Istanbul, Turkey. No U.S. cities are in the running. Salt Lake City will play host in February to the 2002 Winter Games; the next American Olympics bid will be for the 2012 Summer Games.

In considering Beijing, foremost among the issues is consideration of human-rights concerns in a nation governed by an authoritarian, communist regime. Bringing the Games to China might well condone police repression, opponents say.

“If you want to look at historical precedents, I remember the Berlin Olympics in 1936,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), who in March introduced a resolution in Congress opposing the Beijing bid on human-rights grounds. “It was the high point of glory for Hitler’s Germany because the Germans put on a spectacular show--as the Chinese will. And Hitler and his appalling regime were basking in the reflected glory of the Olympics.”

But for a movement that makes much of “universality,” inclusiveness, and--in this context--spreading the Games around the globe, many IOC members say the question about Beijing’s bid is aptly framed this way: How can the Olympics not go to China?

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“I have to argue for universality,” said Australia’s senior IOC member, R. Kevan Gosper, who stressed that he has not yet decided how he will vote. “When you look at that, you look at Beijing. It’s hard to move from that. The universality of Olympism has been one of our greatest strengths over 100 years. And we’ve taken certain risks to maintain that ideal.”

The IOC has ventured infrequently to developing nations for its showcase, the Summer Games--to Mexico City in 1968 and, some would say, to Seoul in 1988.

Other factors for the IOC to consider include the environmental impact of the grand-scale development needed to accommodate the Games in Beijing, as well as the promise of even more traffic.

The traffic already is awful. In 1980 there were 20 privately owned mechanized vehicles in Beijing; now, with economic growth galloping along at 8% annually, there are a total of 1.5 million cars, diesel-belching trucks and buses dueling on the roads with untold millions of bicycles. And no one yields.

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Even China’s experts acknowledge the challenge that lies ahead.

“This problem is not going to be solved in a day,” said Liu Qin, a senior engineer at Beijing’s central traffic authority. “If I even tell you we are going to solve this problem in a month, it is like saying I’m going to build a castle in the air.”

The smog in Beijing is so bad that it’s possible to be in the city for a week and never see the sun. And as for the summer weather, a bad day feels like Las Vegas in July but with the addition of brutal humidity.

Then there are the basics--whether athletes will feel comfortable eating the local food and drinking the water.

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In truth, the tap water is generally fine. And, as locals and expatriates alike are fond of pointing out, the food can be astonishingly good, even great.

Even if one’s taste runs to fast food, fear not. There are 69 McDonald’s restaurants already operating in and around Beijing--more even than Paris, which has 63. (Toronto wins the McDonald’s derby, with 233.)

Beijing officials also point out that they would have seven years to work on the traffic and smog, and describe elaborate subway extensions they vow will be completed in time for the opening ceremonies. In all, Beijing anticipates the spending of $14.3 billion on municipal infrastructure and sports venues in preparation for the Games. For comparison, the Paris 2008 budget for capital investment is just over $2 billion.

The Olympic Village and many of the sports venues would be clustered on the north side of town in an area now occupied by a rice paddy, some warehouses and--in the eclectic mix of traditional and modern that marks so much of Beijing--a high-rise hotel that features a T.G.I. Friday’s outpost.

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As for the weather, Beijing bid officials like to say, remember the 1996 Games? The ones in hot, muggy Atlanta?

Those Games were won in part by offering the world the vision of a new American South. Officials in Beijing say the 2008 Olympics would showcase a 21st century China.

“We have the capabilities to stage a most excellent Olympics,” Mayor Liu Qi said.

Two other issues are also in the mix for the IOC--issues that, for all the public attention paid to human-rights concerns, may ultimately prove key in determining the outcome.

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One is that outgoing IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch has long hoped to see China get the Games.

Officially, he has remained studiously neutral.

Behind the scenes, however, it is well-known that a Chinese victory would mark a triumphant send-off for Samaranch--by taking the Games to the nation that’s home to 22% of the world’s population. He steps down July 16 after 21 years atop the IOC.

The unavoidable fact that China is so big--and has yet to host the Games--clearly works against Toronto and Paris.

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Paris, for instance, has already staged the Summer Games twice, albeit in 1900 and 1924, and the Winter Games have been held three times in France, in 1924 in Chamonix, 1968 in Grenoble and 1992 in Albertville.

Canada has staged two Olympics, the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary and the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. Canada’s Dick Pound and other IOC members have asked, in reference to Canada, how do you go back to a small country for the third time in 30 years while snubbing the most populous nation in the world?

The other issue is guilt.

Eight years ago, Beijing lost the 2000 Olympics to Sydney, by two votes, 45-43. It was later disclosed that on the night before the 1993 vote, Australia’s Olympic Committee chief John Coates promised $35,000 in aid to the national Olympic committees in Kenya and Uganda--contingent on a Sydney victory.

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The IOC has a history of guilt-motivated payback.

As one of many such examples, Athens lost to Atlanta in 1990 for the 1996 Games; the next time Athens bid, in 1997, the IOC remembered what had happened before and awarded the Greeks the 2004 Games.

The most obvious rationale for not going to China is the human-rights issue.

At the time of the 1993 vote for the 2000 Games, only four years had passed since the 1989 assault by Chinese tanks and troops on activists pressing for democracy in Tiananmen Square, and that episode remained fresh in many minds.

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Now it’s 12 years later. And the Chinese, having learned much from their defeat in 1993, have hired western public relations help--one firm in New York, another in London--to defuse questions.

“We stick to the principle that we should separate the Olympic movement from politics,” said Mayor Liu, who also serves as president of the Beijing 2008 bid. This statement, word for word, is the one that Beijing officials have proclaimed at Olympic meetings around the world for the last several months.

Another key official, Liu Jingmin, deputy executive president of Beijing 2008, introduced a variation in the script in a recent interview at bid headquarters.

He said China has been “opening up” for the last 20 years and declared, “Right now, the situation for human rights in China is the best ever in history. “The construction of democracy and the rule of law have been improved and are developing,” he said. He quickly added, “Of course I don’t mean to say China has no problems in this regard.”

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He also ventured that it is unfair for Westerners to impose Western values on China.

“China’s values are different than the English philosopher Locke and the French philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire,” who exalted the role of the individual in society. Asked to explain, he said Chinese society emphasizes “harmony between people and society,” adding, “Of course, that’s a long story.”

Human-rights activists, however, have been flooding the e-mail in-boxes of IOC members with dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of messages a day that urge a no vote.

They fear that awarding the Games to Beijing will provoke ongoing abuses against those termed “undesirables” by Chinese authorities, meaning dissidents, the mentally ill, the homeless, even those who are simply unemployed.

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Several IOC members said the e-mail strategy appears to be backfiring. “The anti-China lobby is being very stupid,” said one IOC member. “Their lobby is antagonizing people.”

Lantos’ congressional resolution also strikes a discordant note with many Olympic insiders.

Sport Intern, a German newsletter that is must reading for aficionados of IOC politics, says the IOC has an “obligation” to “set an example” by electing Beijing, in part as a response to “the question as to what rights American politicians have to act as guardians of [morals] within the Olympic movement.”

Echoed one IOC member: “This petition being signed by American congressman, I don’t think this works. People in the IOC are going to say, ‘Who in the hell are you to tell us this?’ ”

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Adding to the intrigue: Some IOC members have already begun noting that the congressional resolution--whether it passes--may impact Washington’s chances of landing the 2012 Games. Washington, New York and Los Angeles are among eight U.S. cities vying for the 2012 Summer Games.

It is uncertain whether Lantos’ resolution will reach the House floor. A competing resolution meant to block Lantos’ was introduced several weeks ago by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and urges IOC members not to mix politics and sports.

American athletes ultimately might suffer, Murray said, as they did in the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. “I don’t think we should use our athletes as pawns in any political game,” she said.

The Bush administration has decided to remain neutral. Speaking Tuesday to reporters, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the president had said “that’s a matter for the Olympic officials.”

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Perhaps, however, the final word on the human-rights issue has already been delivered.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, offered his support for Beijing a few weeks back, saying Beijing “deserves to be the Olympic host.”

At the supremely air-conditioned Beijing 2008 bid headquarters, where they are well aware of the Dalai Lama’s remarks, there is confidence--but, officials caution, not arrogance.

“It’s not an easy position,” China’s senior IOC member, He Zhenliang, said. He added, “It makes you work harder.”

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Ordinary Chinese already are hoping and preparing for victory.

At the No. 33 Middle School, west of Tiananmen Square, about two dozen Beijingers gather each Sunday morning, squeeze into seats built for kids and learn English in anticipation of an event seven years away.

All together, they chant, “Welcome to Beijing! Welcome to China!” And they role-play, pretending to welcome “Mr. Smith from America” to town: “Very glad to meet you, Mr. Smith. Any more luggage?”

When class is over, one of the best students, Yu Guangquan, 72, a retired metallurgist, seeks a foreigner to say, “I hope Beijing can win the bid for the 2008 Olympic Games,” a sentence oft-practiced in class.

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Then, he dares to strike out on his own. Speaking slowly, enunciating each word in this foreign tongue with great care, he says, “For China, for our nation, it will be a great success in many directions.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

OLYMPIC OUTLOOK

* International Olympic Committee meets July 13 in Moscow to select site of the 2008 Summer Games.

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* Beijing is considered the front-runner, but its smoggy, muggy weather is a minus. The city faces opposition from human-rights activists.

* Competing bid cities include Paris and Toronto. Osaka, Japan, and Istanbul, Turkey, are in the running but given little chance.

At a Glance

* Home to 1.26 billion people, China’s land mass is slightly smaller than the United States. Beijing is the communist nation’s second largest city after Shanghai.

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* Attractions such as the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Silk Market and the Avenue of Everlasting Peace draws countless tourists from around the world each year.

* Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, is nicknamed “Silicon Valley” because of its high-tech center.

* Beijing’s annual rainfall averages more than 27 inches, much of it during July and August.

* In the mid-1990s, Beijing had the dubious distinction of being named the world’s most polluted city by the World Bank.

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* A sign of the changing times: There are 69 McDonald’s operating in or around the city.


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