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  • Op Ed -- Promises Made, Promises Kept


    08/02/08

    Seven years ago when Beijing won the 2008 Olympics, promises were made. Some have been kept; others we’re not sure about.

    “I think certainly we will give media complete freedom to report on anything when it comes to China,” said bid leader Wang Wei in July 2001 at the IOC Session in Moscow where Beijing was awarded the Games.

    For now, that’s a promise half-delivered.

    With one week until the Games open, reporters and the IOC are pressing China to break down the barriers that prevent access to websites deemed politically sensitive.

    Only after an outcry this week by journalists in Beijing did China relent, cracking open the web by allowing access to the websites of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

    While a BOCOG spokesman says the internet is “fully open” to journalists, other sites remain blocked, such as those for Free Tibet and portions of YouTube carrying video of the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre.

    It remains to be seen if the restrictions will fall completely. And more important than the needs of journalists is the question of whether this new policy will open the web to all of China after the Games conclude? That could be a legacy far more valuable than stadiums and improved infrastructure.

    Despite promises made just a few weeks ago to give broadcasters the freedom to report at will throughout the city, the difficulty coming to terms with Chinese authorities leaves some doubt about how willing they are to deliver on this pledge.

    On the plus side, journalists have been free to report on the internet controversy and other stories possibly unfavorable to China -- so far without censorship. The free rein for reporters has been a constant promise since Beijing won the Games.

    Another sign of change: CNN and BBC have escaped blackouts by censors when reports critical of China are airing. Blackouts have been a regular practice in the past.

    News blackouts aside, the sun is shining Friday in Beijing, the ugly haze of the past two weeks dissolving in a burst of overnight rain and a steady breeze.

    Vehicle restrictions and the shutting of factories and construction sites have also helped reduce the load of airborne particulates. If that’s not enough, even more stringent rules on cars are promised.

    Finally, the promise to make Beijing physically ready for the Games has been delivered in spades.

    Since my last visit just over two months ago, the city has been transformed from a construction zone and warren of haphazard traffic detours into what would appear to be the most stunningly prepared Olympic city in memory.

    Floral displays, banners, flags and building wraps are ubiquitous. Past Olympics have often been strapped for cash. That has forced them to scale back the so-called "look of the Games", sometimes concentrating on areas around venues and major gateways. Not so for Beijing. North, south, east and west -- the city proclaims the Olympics are here.

    The venues are a dream: so far not a complaint about the facilities or signs of hasty shortcuts to make the ultimate deadline. The observation that there’s always a last coat of paint to apply or some other finishing touch would seem not to apply to Beijing. The paint brushes have been put away, the paint cans sealed.

    Finally, volunteers -- the people who make the Games a success -- are turning on the charm and doing their jobs.

    Whether helping tote luggage to the rooms of athletes in the village or guiding media with a smile to the right bus, this seems to be a group of people who want to welcome the world to China.

    Keeping promises is always one of the hardest things for Olympic organizers. The complexity of this sports event makes it easy for things to run off the rails and to force compromises at the last minute -- to say “that’s good enough” when it’s really not.

    Three weeks from now we’ll grade Beijing on the delivery of a near-decade of promises. For now, as they say, let the Games begin.

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