China's Olympic challenge

On the eve of the most politically charged Games in decades, can Beijing change its ways?

China was under pressure yesterday to lift censorship and honour its human rights guarantees as thousands of athletes, officials and tourists began arriving for the Olympics, which Beijing's Communist leadership sees as the moment the country takes its rightful place on the world stage.

With only five days to go before the Games, on which the country has spent £20bn, anticipation among Chinese is high. Many in Beijing are quoting the saying "Bai nian bu yu", which translates as "We've been waiting 100 years for this".

President Hu Jintao said amid final preparations that the Games would have an enduring benefit for China and leave a positive "spiritual legacy", adding: "The Chinese government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honour the commitments made to the international community."

Many at home as well as around the world hope that the Games will encourage China's 1.3 billion people to move towards greater political reform and democracy, to match years of strong economic growth that has transformed China into the fourth-biggest economy in the world. George Bush will become the first US President to attend an Olympiad on foreign soil, giving a further boost to Chinese pride.

One of the greatest threats to the prestige of the Games, the choking air pollution that normally afflicts the capital, appeared to be easing as last-ditch measures took effect, but activists said China was being allowed to sidestep the pledges it made in 2001 to be awarded the Olympics.

Amnesty International said that rather than improving human rights, the Games had made the situation worse. Activists had been locked up; people had been evicted from their homes to make way for Olympics-related redevelopment, and the use of "re-education through labour" camps and beatings in prison had increased.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said: "Chinese human rights activists are being detained, harassed or forced to leave Beijing, while their supporters abroad are being prevented from going to China. It is against this backdrop that the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) plan to launch the 2008 Summer Olympics."

Yesterday the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, was accused of backtracking on promises to safeguard press freedom after some internet sites remained blocked. He denied that the IOC had agreed to accept the situation, saying: "There has been no deal whatsoever to accept restrictions." But even though Mr Rogge insisted the media "must have the fullest access possible to report on the Olympic Games", he added: "I'm not going to make an apology for something the IOC is not responsible for. We are not running the internet in China. The Chinese authorities are running the internet."

The Chinese authorities are determined that nothing will be allowed to disrupt an event that it has been seeking to host for nearly two decades, and security in Beijing is oppressively tight. The government hopes that the 550,000 visitors, including 10,500 athletes and 30,000 journalists, will be persuaded by the impressive sports facilities and transport systems that China is a modern superpower.

But critics retort that much of China's new prosperity is built on dubious labour practices and poor health and safety enforcement, with corrupt officials persuaded to look the other way. Others are concerned that China's stunning growth has fuelled truculent nationalism which brooks no criticism of its behaviour in troubled regions such as Tibet. The country's insistence on "non-interference" has prevented action on international crises such as Darfur.

With the Chinese authorities maintaining a stranglehold on the media, however, such issues are not discussed domestically. In Beijing yesterday, the main topic was the blue skies that had replaced the more usual smog. The rare visibility and fine weather were put down to overnight rain and the belated impact of strict anti-pollution measures.

"You see, we've done it! You can even see the mountains," enthused one Chinese student volunteer near the newly built "Bird's Nest" stadium, the main venue.

President Hu was blandly dismissive of the critics. "I don't think that politicising the Olympic Games will do anything good to addressing any of the issues," he said.

When politics eclipsed sport

Berlin 1936

The ultimate in stage-managed Games. Delivered a propaganda coup for Hitler during the rise of his Nazi Germany. It was left to the black American Jesse Owens to wipe the smile off the Führer's face by winning four gold medals, including the 100m and 200m races.

Mexico City 1968

A student protest, in which 300 people were killed by the army, preceded the Games by days and the IOC nearly cancelled them. Then American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals, raised black-gloved fists on the podium in support of the US civil rights movement.

Munich 1972

Eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September broke into the Olympic village and took Israeli athletes hostage. One, who resisted capture, was murdered. Following a botched rescue attempt at the airport, 10 more Israeli hostages and a German police officer were killed.

Moscow 1980

With the cold war at its height and a year after Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, the Games were the subject of a boycott, led by the US. The stay-away was joined by more than 45 countries, and the Games had one of the lowest numbers of participating countries ever.

Los Angeles 1984

Not to be outdone, Moscow took its revenge in a Soviet-led boycott of the Games that saw 14 eastern-bloc countries and aligned nations refuse to take part. The USSR said it would not participate because of an "anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up". Iran and Libya also stayed at home.

Seoul 1988

A year before the Games, South Korea's military dictatorship collapsed. North Korea, still officially at war with the south, boycotted – as did Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua.

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