Secrecy and a shifting skyline: Changed nation relishes the great ball of China

The 2008 Olympics are shaping up to be a wonderful extravaganza, but at what cost? Nick Harris reports from Beijing

The workers at Wukesong perch like birds on a wire at the top of the towering pylons that will soon support the roof of the 18,000-seat indoor stadium for the 2008 Olympics basketball competition. Still unaccustomed to Western visitors, they stare, then giggle for a picture.

Debris tumbles intermittently through holes in the concourse areas. Ditto bits of burning solder. Huge yellow trucks rumble up and down the road outside, which is closed to the public. As you watch one tip its substantial load 30 feet down into yet another hole, where moments before there were labourers milling at the bottom, you wonder about the hidden costs.

Nobody will say how many men are working at this site in west Beijing, or at the 10 other new 2008 venues rising in four clusters across the capital. Nobody will say how much is being spent. "It's complicated," is one official answer. "But everything is going very smoothly."

What is not in any doubt is that the basketball hall, like the city, is shaping up. And how.

The scene at Wukesong last Friday - 875 days before the Olympic opening ceremony will start at "the lucky moment" of 8pm on 8-8-2008 - is the whole Beijing Games caboodle in microcosm. A work in progress. A great leap forward. A reason for intense national pride. But enigmatic. Don't ask, just yet, for too much detail. The Chinese will come to that when the time is right.

China, especially Beijing, is being redrawn, literally and metaphorically. So extensive is the rebuilding that the Beijing government issues a new map every three months.

The sporting landscape is also shifting. At the Atlanta Games of 1996, China was fourth in the medals table. In Sydney 2000 it was third, and in Athens 2004, second. The final progression in 2008 is taken for granted here.

In Greece, America won 35 golds to China's 32. Beating the USA is the target, the imperative. Much more than sport is at stake.

Officials says China's operational budget is $1.625bn (£930m) and the projected "cost of operations" is $1.609bn, guaranteeing a small surplus. It sounds neat, but is pretty meaningless. The venues alone will cost up to £2bn, but not all are funded by the operational budget but via a complex series of state, local, corporation and sponsor finance. Estimates of total spend on Games-related infrastructure are as high as another £24bn. The Government is pulling out all the stops in a way London 2012 can only fantasise about.

Extra spending on sport is impossible to gauge, but massive. China wants to excel not just in table tennis, badminton, diving, shooting and weightlifting. In Athens it broke new ground when Liu Hiang hurdled to gold and Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the women's tennis doubles, and it wants more firsts in 2008.

Chinese tennis, with government backing, is an emerging force, with a first Grand Slam win (women's doubles, Yan Zi and Zheng Jie) in Australia this year. By 2008, the state wants to make an Olympic impact on the track and in the pool, in more martial arts, and in basketball, especially basketball, where Yao Ming, the national hero, who has made it in America, will star.

Across town from Wukesong, in the north of the city, lies the Olympic Green, a development spread over more than 11 square kilometres where the new National Stadium and Aquatics Centre will take pride of place. The entire Green is shielded from public view by a vast fence, although from a mile away you can see the stunning Stadium, nicknamed "Bird's Nest" for its structure, rising up. At one point on the perimeter, you can get to within a few hundred yards and take a snap. But the Games organisers do not want anyone to take aerial shots until it is ready. A hotel nearby has been closed to prevent pictures from the upper floors.

The new headquarters of the organising committee, BOCOG, lie a cab ride away on the Fourth Ring Road. The trip takes 20 to 80 minutes, depending on congestion. Traffic is the first thing that Sun Weide, a foreign ministry official seconded to the Games, admits has posed a problem. "And air quality," he adds.

Having lived and worked around the world, including in America, Ireland and the Middle East, he is aware that foreign media will be asking any number of difficult questions, on subjects from human rights to Taiwan. On any given controversial subject, the answers will invariably be "that's in the best interests of, or most appropriate for, China".

Asked why it is not possible to access the BBC's website from within China, for example, he gives a general answer. He said that the Chinese Government is in favour of the internet as a technology, but even Western newspapers reserve the right to manage their content, for example by deleting offensive material from message boards. "We believe in following the law and are against the spread of misinformation," he said.

He added that media policy will fall in line with International Olympic Committee policy. "And if we need to change our law we will change it," he said. That will certainly extend to giving all 21,000 accredited media free access, without question, in and out of China for a three-month period around the Games. China's immigration laws will need to be altered for that alone. Sun hints that other gestures of openness are on the cards. .

Last year, the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, writing in an official 2008 brochure, said: "This greater exposure of China to the world will undoubtedly help promote increased openness and understanding over the coming years." Subtext: we hope a China Games improve China's domestic shortcomings, but let's not say so too explicitly.

On purely Games matters, Sun is effusive, a mine of statistical minutiae. His open acknowledgement of traffic and air headaches is something it is hard to imagine a London 2012 official doing. But then he has an array of stats to show how things are getting better. By 2008 there will be an astonishing 1,000km of new highways in the capital, 84km of new train lines, and an increase in local use of public transport from 25 per cent to 40 per cent of the 15m people. This should lead to clearer roads for a fortnight in 2008, although "scientific management" and "driver education" plans are also being put in place. More pertinently, the government will reserve the right to effectively shut the city to private cars.

On air pollution, Sun says that Beijing had 100 days of good air in 1998, and this was up to 234 last year. Major polluters have been moved to neighbouring provinces ("with cleaner technology," says Sun) and the steel works has cut production. Large areas have been planted with trees and flowers. "Almost every aspect of people's lives will improve through cleaner air, cleaner water, a greener landscape," Sun said.

The Chinese people are 95 per cent in support of 2008, a Games record. It is hard to find anybody who is not genuinely enthusiastic. "When we lost out to Sydney in our previous bid it was terrible," says Zhang Yi, a 32-year-old teacher and expectant mother. "We are so happy now. We think this can really make our lives better. We have seen other nations have the Olympics and to do this ourselves makes us very proud."

Even Sun says that the Games can be "a driving force for economic and social change".

Driving force? Time will tell. But forget driving, especially if you're heading for Wukesong. Get out at the nearby tube station, walk a few hundred yards and turn right. By 2008, you'll be allowed in.

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