BEIJING OLYMPICS 2008

Torch back in China as official countdown begins

4 min

After a troubled journey around the world, the Olympic torch returned to China in time for the start of 100-day official countdown. (Story: France2, K.Spencer)

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BEIJING - China marked the start of the 100-day countdown to the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday with songs, a mass run and even prayers, hoping to put behind it the tumultuous events of the past month which have taken much of the gloss off preparations.

 

Unlike run-ups to recent Olympics, Beijing's preparations have kept to plan and some stadiums and infrastructure have even been completed ahead of schedule.

 

The city has spent $35-$40 billion on improved infrastructure, including a new airport terminal and subway lines, as well as $2.1 billion to cover the cost of running the Games.

 

"The 100 days ahead will bring mounting excitement and energy to Beijing," the International Olympic Committee said. "Citizens and visitors will see the city continue to transform itself, as it welcomes athletes, the media and spectators for the final test events, as well as for the Games themselves."

 

But over the past few months the city's smooth preparations have been overshadowed by the torch relay's troubled journey around the globe, with protesters targeting China's human rights record, in particular its policies on Tibet.

 

Wednesday's festivities started off under a hazy sky with a run around the Olympic Green by 10,000 Beijing residents, part of China's promise to make the Games a "People's Olympics".

 

There will also be songs celebrating the Games.

 

And in officially atheist China, Catholic churches prayed for a successful Games. One nun told Reuters they forgave people who had disrupted the torch relay.

 

"Of course we forgive the things that those who don't understand politics have done," Angela Teresa Ying said after attending a Mass for the Games at a Beijing cathedral.

 

China has vowed not to be distracted by the protests from holding a "high level Olympic Games with distinguishing characteristics".

 

"Although a few people with ulterior motives have tried to interfere with and vilify the Beijing Olympics ... this can never alter the determination of the 1.3 billion Chinese to successfully hold the Games for the world," the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said in an editorial.

 

The city will be desperate to prevent a repeat of the one-year countdown, when Free Tibet activists scaled the Great Wall, smog smothered Beijing and torrential rain brought parts of the capital to a standstill.

 

Security in Beijing has been noticeably stepped-up following last month's anti-Chinese protests in Tibet, the torch relay and China's assertion that it has broken up terrorist plots to attack the Games.

 

MEDIA CONCERNS

 

Beijing's promise to ensure complete media freedom has also been called into question, especially following Chinese criticism of foreign reporters for perceived bias in their coverage of the Tibet protests, with some reporters receiving death threats.

 

"If allowed to continue, the reporting interference and hate campaigns targeting international media may poison the pre-Games atmosphere for foreign journalists," said Melinda Liu, President of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao denied the Chinese public harboured anti-Western sentiment.

 

"What they want is only impartial and fair media coverage. That is legitimate," Liu said.

 

China has lashed out at human rights groups and some European and U.S. politicians who have, in China's words, tried to politicise the Games and raised the prospect of an Olympic boycott in light of the crackdown on protests in Tibet.

 

Olympics chiefs have praised the city's preparations and its showpiece stadiums, the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, have drawn wide acclaim.

 

"The Beijing Organising Committee has put a tremendous amount of effort into putting on a great Games for the athletes," the IOC said in a statement.

 

"It is currently fine-tuning its operations and we are satisfied by the assurances that we have received across a number of areas of Games preparations, ranging from media service levels to environmental contingency plans for improved air quality."

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