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One year to the Beijing Olympics

In Games preparation, China goes for the gold

Construction, upheaval reach unrivaled pace

BEIJING -- The official Olympic countdown song is "We're Ready!," a rare bit of understatement in China's frenetic, massive preparation for the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad, which begin exactly one year from today.

In Tiananmen Square, a two-story-high digital clock at the National Museum across from the Monument to the People's Heroes has been counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the opening ceremonies since July 2001, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to China for the first time.

Once Beijing got the nod, it embarked on profound urban renewal, spending an estimated $40 billion on construction and renovation that is the biggest and costliest project since the Great Wall. The signature facilities are the most impressive and imaginative in Olympic history, many people say. Three years ago, preparations were so far ahead of schedule that the IOC asked the city to slow down.

"Everything is new for me. Most places, I can't recognize," said US table tennis star Gao Jun, who lived in Beijing for eight years when she competed for China before emigrating in 1993. She returned for the first time this month as part of a tour by US athletes. "I'm thinking, where is this, where is that?"

For China, the Games are an opportunity to show off a capital of 16 million that has turned itself into a 21st-century megacity in less than two decades. To mark the official one-year-out date, Beijing is planning a celebration today with more than 10,000 people crowding into Tiananmen Square, and the rest of the country watching on TV.

"This is a milestone moment," declared Zhao Dongming, director of culture and ceremonies for Beijing's Olympic organizing committee. "It will be celebrated in a grand, enthusiastic, exciting, happy, and historic manner."

The country's leadership also hopes to dim the world's memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were put down violently and led to a countrywide crackdown. Outside China, Beijing remains the most controversial Olympic site since Moscow in 1980, when the Games were held less than seven months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The US led a boycott that involved more than 50 countries.

Human rights organizations immediately condemned the choice of Beijing, saying that it was an endorsement of a repressive regime. This spring, Amnesty International charged that the government still was abusing human rights, jailing activists, and evicting residents and razing their homes to clear space. Another human rights organization estimated that 60,000 homes are being eliminated per year.

Much of the massive construction (30,000 workers) would have been done anyway, Chinese officials said, as this sprawling city strains to accommodate its soaring population.

"We haven't done anything for the Olympics' sake," Beijing vice mayor Chen Gang said. "The difference is that we do it ahead of the original plan."

The upheaval across Beijing has been dramatic, with perhaps more than a million residents (estimates vary wildly) displaced.

"It is necessary because the society is developing," said Wang Xin, an I Ching expert who lives in the Dongcheng district and makes his living providing lucky names to people and businesses.

"Already, foreigners have come to my restaurant," said Li Yanguo, who runs the cozy Jing Shi Can Ting with his wife, Wu Chunxiang, down the street from the hallowed Lama Temple. "They come to the temple and eat here."

But last week, Wu saw a municipal notice warning that the street would soon be widened by 30 meters (about 100 feet) to ease traffic. "If it's even 20 meters," Wu reckoned, "my restaurant will be gone."

Besides a remade center city, there's a new airport terminal plus expanded subway and light-rail lines and dozens of roads. But the showcase is the expansive Olympic Green in the northern part of the city that includes the 90,000-seat main stadium, the 17,000-seat aquatics center, the 18,000-seat gymnastics hall, and an apartment-style Olympic village for the nearly 17,000 athletes and officials expected for the Games.

"Incredible, I'm just amazed," said American fencer Iris Zimmermann, after half a dozen US athletes got a sneak preview last week as part of a goodwill tour. "The attention to detail is fantastic."

The main stadium, called the "Bird's Nest," with its glowing red illumination, is encased by interwoven steel twigs soaring 23 stories high. The "Water Cube" aquatic center appears to be made of bubbles. To promote traditional feng shui balance between fire and water, the venues were placed side by side.

Other buildings have roofs indicating which sports are held inside. The velodrome's is shaped like a bicycle wheel, the table tennis hall's like a ball, badminton's like a shuttlecock, the shooting center's like a pistol.

Despite the "We're Ready!" anthem (those are the only words sung in English), most of the venues won't be completed until the end of the year, which still is early by Olympic standards. Athens went down to the wire in 2004 and Turin came close for last year's Winter Games. With a year to go before the 1996 Games, Atlanta's venues were only 75 percent completed. What remains to be done in Beijing is largely finish work. Still, the Olympic Green, like most of the city, is clouded in construction dust, adding to the eternal gray haze of one of the planet's most polluted cities.

Smoke from nearby industrial plants and exhaust from 3 million cars make for dusk at dawn. The sun, when it can be glimpsed, is a dull orange disk. To improve the air quality, the government promised to shut down steel and chemical plants during the Games and pull a million cars off the road, as it did during the China-Africa summit last November.

But the hosts can't do anything about the August weather, which usually is sticky and hot, with the mercury pushing 90 degrees, as it was for most of last week. The organizers would have preferred cooler conditions, but the IOC rejected their proposed October date.

According to Chinese numerology, the eighth month actually is the most auspicious for the Games, since that number sounds like the word for wealth. So it's no coincidence that the opening ceremonies will begin on 8/08/08 at 8:08:08 p.m., as every Beijinger already knows.

"Every Chinese person is excited about the Games," said Wun Jieke, a translation-school student who works as a tour guide. "I think 99 percent. Until now, nobody is saying they don't like the Games."

Organizing committee officials say the country's domestic policies have nothing to do with hosting the Games. "We already hear a lot of voices from different sides, and they will become more vocal," said Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of Beijing's organizing committee. "We welcome comments from foreign media about defects, problems, and shortcomings of our work in a constructive way. Yet we also oppose the politicization of the Olympics."

The IOC had bypassed Beijing for Sydney in 2000. But the committee decided it could not ignore the world's most populous country and one of the Games' top three superpowers, along with the US and Russia. By joining other ancient capitals like Athens, Rome, and Tokyo, plus more modern ones like Paris, London, Moscow, and Berlin as an Olympic host, Beijing received the symbolic validation it craved.

"It was real happiness and great luck," said Wang. "When people are talking about Beijing, it will be Beijing, wow! It is a big name."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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