Waving the Red Flag China's Countdown to Olympic Reality

The 2008 Olympic Games will begin in less than 200 days. China, hoping to present itself to the world as a new superpower, has invested $38 billion in the event. Critics expect a propaganda show, but in China the games also bring the hope of more openness and freedom.

By Lothar Gorris and

The countdown to the Beijing Olympics has begun.
Getty Images

The countdown to the Beijing Olympics has begun.

A man is standing on a small pedestal in front of the entrance to the Olympic Tower. He is wearing a grayish-green uniform with a white belt and black gloves, and he holds two flags in his hands, one red and one green, which he waves like a circus performer. As comic as he may look, the man's expression is as stern as that of a soldier in the People's Liberation Army. A green flag means go, and a red flag means stop. More often than not, the man is waving the red flag. It turns out that entering the headquarters of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee isn't as easy as it would seem.

Behind the flag-waving guard, a 19-story glass tower stretches into the sky at Beijing's Fourth Ring road. The Chinese flag and the Olympic Committee's flag hang in front of the building, enshrouded

in the city's notorious smog. Attached to the front of the building and covering several floors is the emblem of the games, a running figure on a red background. The lobby is big enough to double as a small arena, with metal detectors at the entrance, an enormous reception desk and, next to it, a panel as big as a movie screen bearing the logos of the Beijing Olympics' 48 partners and sponsors, companies like McDonald's, China Mobile, General Electric, Bank of China, VW and Air China. The panel represents a total of €1.5 billion ($2.21 billion) in sponsorship funds. Everything here is gigantic, everything glitters -- and everything must be under control.

192 More Days

The Olympic Tower is the heart and brain of these games. It houses the offices of scores of officials deployed by the government sports committees, the city administration, the state council, the party, the news agencies and the universities. They expect close to 17,000 athletes and officials from 205 countries. It's their job to organize 302 competitions in 28 different sports. They will be dealing with more than 20,000 foreign journalists accustomed to receiving answers to their questions. They put together the schedules for the 100,000 volunteers who will be guiding 500,000 tourists through a foreign city. They have spent $38 billion (€25.8 billion), built 20 new competition venues and dug new subway tunnels throughout the city. The Olympic Tower is where everything comes together. And, if the Chinese have their way, everything will be perfect.

The only problem is that the world and the Chinese Communist Party have different notions about what perfect means.

For the Chinese, perfect means dry skies during Beijing's typically rainy August. It means the absence of smog, taxi drivers who can speak English, pedestrians not spitting on the sidewalk and hostesses smiling nonstop. The police are under orders to break up demonstrations, but they should attract as little attention as possible in the process. The Chinese want to hear spectators cheering during the games -- but not too loudly, as it might just evoke memories of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And China's athletes must rake in as many gold medals as possible, but not so many that it becomes embarrassing for others.

The country that has been ruled by the Communist Party for almost 60 years is supposed to present itself to the world as being an open and modern place with a proud and liberal-minded society. That's the biggest challenge of all.

The opening ceremony will happen 192 days after this Tuesday. After that, it will be Organizing Committee member Deng Yaping's job to make sure that the athletes -- more than 10,000 strong -- are housed perfectly, eat perfectly, live perfectly. And that's the easy part of her job.

Deng, the world's top female table tennis player in the 1990s, is today the deputy director of the Olympic Village as well as somewhat of an ambassador for the games. She was the Chinese delegation's spokeswoman in 2001 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2008 Olympics to China. When China unveiled its logo in 2003, she stood next to Hollywood star Jackie Chan on the stage. She is as popular in China as football legend David Beckham is in Britain. She won four gold medals in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics, and she has been world champion nine times. Five years ago, she was voted China's Female Athlete of the 20th Century. A member of the IOC since 1997, Deng studied history in Nottingham in England, and then went on to study economics at Cambridge University. She is currently completing a doctoral thesis. Her topic: Olympic branding. Cosmopolitan and elegant, Deng may be all of 1.50 meters (4'11") tall, but she feels completely up to the job.


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