Peking presses for Olympics prize: China's leaders want to bury the memory of Tiananmen Square under the prestige of hosting the Games in 2000

IN ANSAI county, Shaanxi province, the training of hundreds of drummers is already under way in preparation for the opening ceremony. In physical education colleges around the country, a teaching programme on Olympianism has been introduced. And earlier this month, competition judges carefully selected 'Mr and Miss Peking Olympics'.

Were it not for the date in the ubiquitous official slogan - 'A more open China awaits 2000 Olympics' - anyone driving in from the airport to the city centre, past the hundreds of banners, flags and advertisements, might assume the Olympic athletes were due in Peking next week.

Sundays in January were designated 'days for the bid' and last month public lectures were held on such subjects as the history of the Olympics and the Olympic spirit. And lest anyone forget that this is a city trying to change its international image, an eight-minute promotional video shows soaring aerial shots of Tiananmen Square, filmed by the first foreigners ever given permission to fly in a helicopter over the city.

Chang'an Avenue, the main thoroughfare, where less than four years ago television viewers around the world saw tanks crushing the student pro-democracy movement, is now decked with bright Olympic colours. This year's enduring image of Peking would be a huge building site festooned with a banner proclaiming one of the slogans: 'An epoch-making Games in a legendary city' or 'Citius, Altius, Fortius'.

China's bid to host the Olympic Games at the turn of the millennium has become a very public gamble by the government that the country's promise of further economic reforms and opening up, together with the ability of any authoritarian government to deliver on big projects, will outweigh any squeamish international views that the events of June 1989 and the human-rights situation are at odds with the Olympic ideal.

By the time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) inspecting delegation arrived for a four-day visit earlier this month, only Sydney was considered a stronger candidate by the bookies. The others - Manchester, Berlin, Brasilia and Istanbul - may have to work hard to catch up before the 23 September decision.

The IOC visit showed China's abilities at mass mobilisation. Every taxi had to carry an Olympics sticker and slogans were painted on the buses. Teams of schoolchildren were out cleaning the streets in preparation. Some 22,000 participated in a long- distance run to help demonstrate China's obsession with sport. And, most controversially, the heavily coaldust- polluted Peking air suddenly cleared, amid accusations that over-enthusiastic cadres had turned off public heating systems.

Treated with the same respect as heads of state, the delegation toured the existing facilities - many constructed for the 1990 Asian Games - and considered the detailed proposals of Peking's bid. Gunnar Ericsson, the delegation chief, was quoted as saying: 'So many sports came from China - I didn't know that.'

Asked if the 1989 crackdown would affect the bid, he added: 'I don't think so. We are not going to look at past failures. We only look forward.'

Publicly, on the streets of Peking, most residents declare full support for the bid. According to an official survey, over 92.6 per cent of Chinese favour a Peking Olympics. This is just as well, as the official bid document promises: 'Neither now nor in the future will there emerge in Peking organisations opposing Peking's bid and the hosting of the 2000 Olympiad.'

Two old ladies who took part in cleaning the street for the delegation visit said it would advance China: 'We will enjoy a better reputation in the world.' A civil servant was angry that his 10-year-old son's class was told to clean shop-fronts - but he thought that, on balance, there was a lot to be gained in new roads and a better environment from the dollars 7.5bn infrastructure projects. The bid, for instance, promises that some 70 per cent of the city's polluting chimneys will be demolished.

The most commonly voiced concern is that it will be the ordinary people who will foot the bill for what would be a huge propaganda coup for the government. During the Asian Games many residents were forced to make 'voluntary' contributions.

Western diplomats are divided about the bid - whether it would provide an irresistible push towards wider reforms, or is morally offensive. 'They don't deserve it, but I think they should get it, because it will give the world tremendous leverage over China for the next seven years,' said one. To put it more bluntly, if the students took to the streets again, China could not send the soldiers without risking an Olympic boycott. Already, coincidentally or not, there have been early prison releases including that of student leader Wang Dan.

Others hate the thought of the event's propaganda value to China. 'No totalitarian regime should get it, left or right,' said one. 'The way they are going about the bid is most un- Olympic-spirited. The leaders have decided that, because they want it, they should get it,' said another.

The 23 September decision will be broadcast live on national television. The question on many people's minds is how the country's leaders, who have so publicly backed the campaign, will handle the loss of face if China fails. Confucius said: 'Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail,' but one official publication has already written that Sydney may be awarded the Games only 'out of sympathy' for failing with its 1992 and 1996 bids.

There may yet be some more fundamental reasons why China is disappointed. The 'more open' China of the slogans still, for instance, demands that visiting journalists need the authorities' permission to interview people on the streets about their opinions of the Olympics bid.

The favoured option among many foreign residents in Peking is that China should not be chosen for the 2000 Games, but be given a strong indication that, all being well, they would be front-runners for 2004. Said one: 'The message to them should really be, 'The Olympics awaits a more open China'.'

(Photograph omitted)

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