740 days to go
There's a palpable air of anticipation on the damp streets of the Olympic capital. In 10 days, a magic lucky number will flash on digital red countdown clocks across Beijing and the nation.
They'll blaze with the intensity of the lightning unleashed by the summer's thunderstorms - '8-8-06!' will read the incandescent clock faces; '730 days to go!' will chant the state media.
Indeed, it's only two years out to that much-hyped and bedazzling day, 8-8-08. The 2008 Beijing Olympics are no longer just a distant dream. Next week, showtime really begins.
Test regattas, test athletic meetings, test softball, test volleyball and soccer tournaments, test this, test that, ad infinitum - all are billed over the remaining seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years.
There are scores of volunteer recruitment drives, cultural festivals, hopefully no more corruption scandals, umpteen executive board sessions of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (Bocog), numerous Olympic Games Knowledge Management (OGKM) initiatives et al ... in fact, more seminars, parties, sporting events, launches, ribbon cutting and acronyms than Ycsasa (you can shake a stick at).
The chock-a-block diary makes the mouth water. And the voracious media machine is hungry for any tidbits of information.
But the phone's gone dead, the fax has stopped whirring, Google alerts have dried up and Bocog's once 'acknowledging' press officers refuse to return calls.Time has seemingly frozen on the web, with all related sites going into loop mode, repeating the same stories over and over ... 'Liu Xiang breaks record, divers can do better, sharpshooters on target, gymnasts claim gold, no wind in Qingdao'. It's Olympic Groundhog Day. But it's pigs who have saved the day in this 'silly season' - journalistic parlance for a slow news period. Bocog this week published a 482-word press release on ... pork. Topping the 'hot news' section on its website was the headline 'Qianxihe becomes fresh pork and processed products supplier. Qianxihe will provide funds and pork products to the 29th Olympic Games, Bocog, the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) and the Chinese sports delegation,' trumpeted the release.
Qianxihe is no ordinary provider of edible swine. It has a high seal of approval, supplying both the PLA and the Central Committee.
'It is also the model company of agricultural production processing,' said Liu Yanyun, board chairman of Qianxihe Group.
'It's our great honour to become the fresh pork and processed products exclusive supplier of the 2008 Olympic Games, which suggests our advantage in mechanism, production and technology,' he boasted.
Houtai sanmingzhi (ham sandwiches) and oolong cha all round.
More sponsors than days-to-go have jumped on board the 'Beijing Olympic Games Sponsorship Programme', so there'll be a few more similar 'news items' before 8-8-06, let alone 8-8-08.
Of course, acknowledging the numerous sponsors goes with the territory and to ham it up would not be in the Olympic spirit.
But one wonders if Bocog could have used this quiet period before the razzle-dazzle dateline to reflect on what's happened to the capital and other cities.
In my neighbourhood, the changes are everywhere.
Outside my housing complex is a charming Olympic garden offering shady trees and flowerbeds and the history of the games through statues, sculptures and tasteful bas-reliefs.
Along my street, the Dongsi Olympic Community Centre has opened a large public hall for the elderly and other residents to visit, play mahjong and gossip.
The midnight welders and clanging labourers have ceased their nocturnal racket because much of the downtown building work has been completed.
A new expressway whizzes people to the airport by bypassing the city's jammed thoroughfares. Bars and restaurants, galleries and cafes mushroom and flourish.
The tube network has been, and is being, extended. Once littered concrete expanses have become garden features. All of the above and more are, in part if not all, thanks to the Olympics.