A triumph, but Beijing still needs to lift its game

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am

Despite the lingering concerns over pollution, press freedom and China's human rights record, the Beijing Olympics is becoming a place of good fortune for athletes competing for greatness in the history books.

By yesterday morning, 28 world and Olympic records had been shattered, with American swimmer Michael Phelps bagging eight gold medals in eight races in the 'Water Cube', and Jamaica's Usain Bolt setting an extraordinary world record of 9.69 seconds in the 100 metres sprint in the state-of-the-art 'Bird's Nest'. Meanwhile, the home team has amassed more than 30 gold medals, to outpace all rivals, including the United States.

With the smog having lifted since Friday; enthusiastic crowds cheering not only home teams but also their rivals; the small army of helpful and smiling volunteers; and the smooth and precise organisation of the Games; the host has won praise from athletes, tourists, and even some of the overseas media, which were previously very critical of the host.

But mainland officials will need to work harder in the final week if they want to win gold for staging one of the most successful Games in history: in matters from small details like improving the awfully inadequate supply of meals for spectators to more serious political issues like the lack of protests in the three designated zones.

Athletes should be the happiest bunch. On top of the world-class venues and clockwork staging of the matches, which have helped them to achieve better results, they are also pampered with nice accommodation and treated to a wide selection of Chinese culinary choices in the well-managed Olympic village.

Male athletes have something else they will probably not forget - the tall, elegant, and gracious Chinese girls who carry medals and bouquets at medal ceremonies. There are about 1,000 of them, chosen from 1 million applicants nationwide, according to 15 stringent physical attributes, including age (they must be between 18 and 24) and height (between 168cm and 178cm).

The process was panned by some media as sexist and compared to a process as strict as that employed by emperors to choose their wives.

Many medal winners appear to be unable to take their eyes off the girls, taking a keener interest in them than the medals they are going to be awarded.

People who went to the Athens Games in 2004 are most likely to have been impressed by the warmth and helpfulness of the young Greek volunteers working tirelessly and without pay in the baking sun. Hundreds of thousands of young Chinese boys and girls are trying to match up.

From my personal observation and accounts from friends and colleagues, the mainland volunteers are enthusiastic, diligent and ever smiling. Their knowledge may not always be up to par, but their friendliness and cheerfulness goes a long way to making spectators feel at home.

Mainland fans may lack sophistication, particularly in games like tennis or any other sports with which they are not familiar, but their enthusiasm and fairness is commendable.

In the run-up to the Games, there were fears that fans' patriotism could turn into ugly nationalism, particularly at the sensitive matches between China and the United States or between China and Japan. Instead, the majority of fans have turned out to be good sports. While they are fiercely patriotic, reserving their loudest cheers for home teams, they also applaud Americans or Japanese on their good scores without any signs of mean-spiritedness.

But both the mainland and foreign spectators are not entirely happy, mainly with the scant supply of meals. Due to the mainland's preoccupation with security and order, spectators are urged to come to the venues one or two hours before the start of the matches, but there is a serious lack of restaurants on the Olympic Green and on food stalls inside the venues. On sale are merely chips, bread rolls and soft drinks. Mainland officials can definitely do better in that regard. After all, the fans need full stomachs to cheer the incredible wins of Chinese and foreign athletes.

Moreover, the mainland can definitely do better in being a magnanimous host in dealing with the politically sensitive issues like protests and the expression of different views. Under international pressure, the leadership has designated three parks for legal protests. But so far, none has taken place in the parks because the mainland police have rejected all applications and kicked out applicants from outside Beijing, or put Beijing applicants under strict surveillance, according to overseas media reports.

This is narrow-minded.

By allowing peaceful and legitimate protests in those parks, the mainland can win praise from the international community instead of losing face as many mainland leaders fear. Denying protests will put the mainland on the defensive and lose points, in what is otherwise the most successful public relations exercise the mainland has ever had.