More important than gold medals

In less than a year — before the 2008 Summer Olympics opens in Beijing on Aug. 8 — China will have to overcome problems related to the world sports event, which the country hopes will showcase its rapid development and its status as a leading power in Asia. The 17-day Beijing Games will be the third such event to be held in Asia, following the 1964 Tokyo Games and 1988 Seoul Games.

China is clearly staking national prestige on the games’ successful operation. It will be paramount that China do its best to create an environment, physically and otherwise, that will ensure that athletes are able to give full play to their abilities and that spectators can fully enjoy the games.

China has become the world’s No. 1 emitter of carbon dioxide, surpassing the United States. Air pollution in Beijing is very severe, despite government efforts to alleviate it. The fear has been raised that participants in outdoor sports events will have a difficult time. Some national Olympics committees are considering whether to hold off on sending athletes to Beijing until shortly before the the games start. Ensuring the safety of food and water as well as sufficient water supplies and well-prepared medical services will also be crucial.

Beijing National Stadium, the main track and field stadium known as the Bird’s Nest, was scheduled to be completed toward the end of this year. But its completion has been postponed through March 2008. Apart from hardware problems, China will be tested on “soft” issues such as distribution of tickets, accommodation and transportation of athletes and judges, provisions for journalists and assurance of press freedom.

China also has an image problem with human rights issues. The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, a Geneva-based U.N.-funded agency, has reported that 1.25 million people have already been displaced in Beijing as the Chinese capital prepares for the 2008 Games.

China will strive to win as many gold medals as possible. But if the Beijing Games convince the world that China is an open country, it will be the best achievement China can be proud of.