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  • Op Ed-- Welcome to Beijing


    With still weeks until the Games, is it possible that Beijing has rolled up the welcome mat before the guests arrive?

    Maybe it was the sight of surface-to-air missiles on the Olympic Green this week. Or the fine-tooth comb foreigners now face before a visa is issued. Or the increased scrutiny police are giving Beijing night spots and restaurants.

    It seems as if China is doing all it can to discourage visitors for an event that is supposed to open the country to the world.

    The regulars will make it to Beijing in August, those who have to be there: athletes, media, sports leaders and sponsors.

    But there are ominous signs that the crowds of sports fans from around the world who bring color to the Olympics may not be making the journey to Beijing.

    Hotels report plenty of rooms still available, as are seats on airlines flying to China. But given the hoops and hurdles needed for visas and the slim supply of tickets, the last-minute traveler is likely to stay home.

    Any more bad news from China could lead to cancellations from guests invited as part of hospitality programs. Even cost-free, a trip to Beijing may not be worth the hassle for some people.

    As many as 500,000 were once expected to come in August; I think Beijing may struggle to reach half that number.

    That may be fine with many Beijingers. A professor quoted in one western media report says the city is already too congested without Olympic visitors. Big hikes in gasoline prices and the costs of other necessities could be fueling pre-Games grumpiness, too.

    And there are bigger issues to help spoil the Olympic mood.

    The protests along the international Olympic torch relay in April served as a shocking jolt of reality for China. Anti-China fever stirred an equal measure of pro-China fervor, quickly

    Overcoming the ideal of nations coming together over the Olympics.

    Then the earthquake struck Sichuan on May 12, killing up to 80,000 and displacing millions.

    Watching continuous TV coverage from the disaster while in Beijing last month, I think I came around to a way of thinking shared by many people in China: the Olympics are not so important any more. Not in the aftermath of such death. Not while millions struggle with homelessness.

    In a major display of respect for earthquake victims, the Olympic torch relay continues its trek sotto voce across China. Relay legs begin with a moment of silence. Gone are all-day runs: most stops now last a couple of hours or so.

    Even the sweet-faced Fuwa mascots have been dragged into the funk. The five characters are being viewed as omens of bad luck, according to postings on Chinese websites.

    The panda was a harbinger of the earthquake, the antelope of the riots in Tibet in March, the flame a symbol of the protests on the torch relay. The swallow supposedly predicted a train collision in April. People say they are waiting for the flood they think the fish mascot will bring.

    Regardless of the mood, the Olympics will go on, maybe not shining as brightly as everyone expected a year ago. But the Games may still offer a balm, a summit, a respite, a place for honor.

    And in the interest of good times in Beijing, please keep my favorite pizza joint open and un-hassled by the restaurant police.

    Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: