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China originally hoped to hold the 2000 Games, which were awarded to Sydney in a 1993 vote. Coming only a few years after the events at Tiananmen Square, China's human-rights record was considered in some quarters the main reason it lost the bid by two votes, although Australian bid officials' bribery of International Olympic Committee members, it came out later, may have had something to do with it. In any case, the official Chinese response, in an editorial published in the China Daily, made clear the snub was seen as simply one more in a century of "brutal colonialist aggression and exploitation." In a swoop, it lumped the lost bid in with other black moments in China's recent history, such as its commercial exploitation at the hands of Western powers at the turn of the century; the Japanese occupation in the 1930s; and the long period of diplomatic and economic isolation that followed the Communists' rise to power in 1949.
China regrouped and tried again. It was convinced that playing host to the Games would not only further the reforms that began 25 years ago, but also provide a stage for its newly confident self.
"I think that some media or individual groups depict a wrong picture of China," says Zhang Haifeng, deputy director of communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG). "For example, some people think that China's development will pose a threat to the world, the so-called 'China threat theory,' and some people think there has been no progress in China in human rights, or whatever, and all this is not true. I think that some media and or individual groups depict a wrong picture, so we hope that the Olympics will provide the opportunity to have a true understanding of China."
And the evidence suggests that unlike most Olympic host countries, where holding a multibillion-dollar extravaganza (China is reportedly spending $38-billion) is often greeted with public ambivalence if not hostility, the official outlook is actually widely represented.
"I absolutely support the Olympics in Beijing," says Zhao Yan, a 28-year-old software engineer. "Beijing's international status will be better and it is an opportunity to show China to the world."
Public support in China for the Games ran as high as 96 per cent, according to a reputedly independent poll taken by the IOC during the bid process. When news came in July of 2001 that Beijing's bid had won over four other cities, including Toronto, millions took to the streets to celebrate. This past summer, when the Olympic torch relay passed through Beijing, an estimated two million residents came out to catch a glimpse of the flickering symbol. Housewives and cabbies can tell you China won 32 gold medals in Athens, its best Olympic showing and trailing only the 35 won by the United States.
Part of the support likely stems from high expectations for the practical improvements that are expected to come because of the Games. The very air Beijingers breathe - a yellowish, toxic sludge on its worst days, this being one of world's most polluted cities - is supposed to improve. The bid for 2008 included a pledge to make Beijing a greener city, and authorities have undertaken an ambitious tree-planting program, set new emissions targets and are cracking down on companies that flout environmental standards.
Playing host to the Games has also prompted a number of infrastructure projects, including plans to triple the length of Beijing's expressway system and build five new subway lines - of prime interest in a city where traffic is always in some degree of snarl.
There's also a sense that the activity leading up to the Games will help sustain China's robust economic growth. In addition to the flurry of construction and investment, BOCOG's $2-billion operating budget is expected to be covered and then some by a fully subscribed marketing program, with multinationals like Coke, General Electric and McDonalds having paid as much as $175-million to be Olympic sponsors for the next four years, a 30-per-cent increase over the past Olympic cycle.