Beijing Olympic Games come to a close

China celebrated the end of the 2008 Olympics with a monumental show in Beijing in which London also gave a dazzling performance ahead of the games there in 2012. The Games symbolised China's stunning economic boom over the last three decades.

For many of China's 1.3 billion people and the elite that rule them, the Olympic dream came true.

China surpassed the United States as the most powerful sports nation, foreign visitors marvelled at Beijing's stunning new skyline and controversies that marred the build-up to the Games largely slipped into the background.

In this vein, the Beijing Olympics seem destined to be remembered as the moment in history that symbolised China's past three decades of phenomenal development and its emergence as a global superpower.

Chapters of sporting brilliance written by the likes of US swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican athletics sprint king Usain Bolt will also be forever remembered by the Chinese crowds and the record TV audiences overseas.

"China has been dreaming of this for 100 years, now it's finally come true. Can we be happier?" said Du Zhengyi, a 62-year-old headmaster from northeast China as he posed for a photo in front of the iconic Bird's Nest stadium.

Yet, for all the successes on and off the field of play, some of the concerns around the world about communist-ruled China would not go away, ensuring question marks would hang over the legacy of the Games.

Tibetan and Muslim minorities continued to complain of repression, dissidents were intimidated into silence or detained, and the Internet remained censored for foreign reporters despite promises it would be unblocked.

"The Beijing Games have put an end... to the notion that these Olympics are a force for good," said Sophie Richardson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

For the billions of television viewers around the world, though, images of futuristic stadia and joyous crowds of middle-class Chinese fans showed how far China has come since the famines and despair of early communist rule.

China spent more than 40 billion dollars preparing for the Games, ensuring state-of-the-art facilities and orchestrating a dramatic anti-pollution campaign that helped temporarily clear Beijing's famously toxic air.

The more than 10,000 athletes who travelled to China were almost unanimous in their praise for the running of the Olympics, and grateful that the dire warnings of pollution impacting their health and performance did not eventuate.

In this respect, the Games were a great advertisement for modern China, according to Tang Wenfang, a lecturer in international studies at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States.

"I think the Olympic Games is an important event that will make the world look at China differently," he said.

"Over the past 20 to 30 years, China was still in the eyes of the world an under-developed country. The Olympic Games has allowed the world to see what China has become."

As the event drew to a close, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge highlighted the complex contradictions surrounding the event while once again defending the decision in 2001 to award China the Games.

"We know the system is not perfect," Rogge said, referring to the Chinese government and life for its citizens.

"A glass is either half full or half empty and I believe it is half full."

When asked about the legacy of the Games for China, Rogge pointed to a heightened awareness about the environment, a greater enthusiasm about sport among ordinary Chinese and the new stadia in Beijing.

He also described greater freedoms for foreign reporters introduced at the start of this year as a "sea change", even though the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China gave a mixed report card at best.

Not in dispute was the sheer magnitude of the Olympics, and the organisers of the London 2012 Games have already scrambled to douse any expectation that their event will be anything like China's version.

"The International Olympic Committee themselves recognise that this is the last edition of a Games which is going to look and feel like this," 2012 Games chief organiser Sebastian Coe said in Beijing.

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