999 days to go And so the clock ticks down to 999 days to go before the opening of the 29th Games, and the impact that a 16-day sporting event is having on the city of Beijing is astounding. For many here, it's a coming-of-age party - the ultimate international acknowledgement after decades of isolation. It's a badge of honour, coming at a time when the country is enjoying an unprecedented economic boom and is asserting itself on the world stage. And it's a matter of national pride that these games be a success. Since July 2001, when Beijing was awarded the games, the city decided it was makeover time. The capital has been invaded by cranes. Pneumatic drills pound out the new national anthem, as sporting venues, hotels, skyscrapers, shopping centres and apartment blocks sprout up. City homes have been demolished and hundreds of thousands of residents dispatched to the suburbs. New motorways loop the city and a network of subway lines are being burrowed beneath. The burgeoning flow of tourists are bemused when they try to reconcile what they see and hear - the eight-lanes of traffic wedged on highways, the relentless urban sprawl, the continuous construction - with the quaint images of China they might have nurtured since childhood. The venues for the games look slick and modern, and contrary to the Greeks' last-minute bungling it seems they will be ready in ample time. The International Olympic Committee even found itself in the unusual position of advising the hosts to slow down the pace of construction, such was the alacrity of the Beijing builders. Financially, officials say things are rosy and the games will actually turn a US$16 million profit. But that, as always, depends on how you read the figures. The estimated US$2 billion that it will cost to run the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Bocog) should indeed be covered, about half coming from the IOC's sale of TV rights, with the rest raised through sponsorship, ticket sales and licensing projects. But beyond that, there is the huge heap of other money being spent too, of course: at least US$2 billion on venues and an estimated US$35 billion of infrastructure and environmental projects, some of which is funded by the private sector. Another gauge of success is in the number of appearances on the podium. China won 32 gold medals in Athens, the country's best haul ever, ending up only three shy of the US in the final tally. While Beijing officials are publicly downplaying their prospects of improving on that performance, more than 2,000 Chinese athletes are currently in full-time training with their national Olympic teams, hoping to make the final cut of 400. And individual coaches say they see a lot of potential for gold among the crowd. While several recent performances give the Chinese team grounds for optimism, the scandal-plagued National Games in Nanjing have to be a major source of concern. Despite the nation's pledge to clean up its act on the doping front, several drug cheats were caught during the games. In addition, there was outrage at several incidents of blatant competition fixing and corrupt umpiring. While none of this bodes well, the positive note is that it shows systems are in place to expose some cheats. The question, of course, is how many are still getting through the net. There were blushes galore too at the Beijing marathon last month, casting a question mark over the city's capability to host major sporting events. Kenya's Benson Cherono took the men's title, despite running 800 metres less than the marathon's full 42.2km after he was led the wrong way. Officials admitted responsibility and ultimately awarded him the trophy anyway, on the grounds that he finished a full kilometre ahead of the second-place finisher. Adding to the farcical flair, China's star distance runner Sun Yingjie won the women's race and tested negative in a subsequent doping test. But the following day, after she took silver in the 10,000-metres at the National Games, she tested positive for androsterone and was thrown out of the games. Sun is likely to serve a two-year competition ban, which means she will be back in action for the Beijing games, where she says she is intent on winning a medal. There are also a host of issues the city must address before it can hope to host a successful games. Topping the list is chronic pollution - last weekend officials from the state environmental agency advised people not to go out into the pea-souper unless it was absolutely necessary. I, in my infinite lack of wisdom, played a soccer game at a pitch just a kilometre or two from the Olympic Green. As we panted around in the dense smog with a strong taste of carbon fumes in our mouths, coughing and wheezing like chain-smokers, we could barely see players in the other half of the field. It was alright for us, we're unhealthy and useless anyway, but it's difficult to imagine the world's elite athletes appreciating those conditions. Another concern is the capital's love affair with the motor car. As the trusty Flying Pigeon bicycles are being jilted in their thousands by the day, the motorways are turning into one big cacophonous car-park for the city's 2.5 million fume belchers. It might look like progress, but these days in Beijing you are generally quicker travelling on foot. But China having the nature it has, the feeling is issues of this ilk can be resolved, at least for the few weeks they play host to the world. The powers that be in Zhongnanhai can snap their fingers and order factories to close and residents to leave their cars at home, creating a temporary illusion that all is well. There are other issues not so easily dealt with, however. Things will not always be smooth and it will be interesting to watch how the organisers deal with scandals and controversies when they arise. Transparency has never been China's forte, and officials, used to dealing with a pliable domestic press, will find things very different in the face of an abrasive international media pack. Security is also a worry, and as with any major international event these days, the threat of terrorist attacks cannot be ignored. And protests have to be expected. During its 56-year reign, the Communist Party has managed to ruffle a lot of feathers, from suppressed religious groups, to pro-democracy activists, to pro-independence types from Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. As an anticipated 30,000 journalists descend upon the city, some of these disaffected elements will likely use the arrival of the world's spotlight to air their grievances. How China handles these strains will be carefully scrutinized, and any heavy-handedness is sure to make bigger headlines around the globe than any record-breaking performance on the track. The sporting story of the Olympics embraces and celebrates so many positive elements of humanity, and after weaving in the inevitable social, political and commercial dimensions the spectacle is truly intriguing. The world will be tuning in to the compelling tale of Beijing's build-up and coming-of-age party - let the games begin.