Daily Telegraph

WITH the Olympics just over 1,000 days away, the Chinese are backtracking over the scale of the Games they had promised they would deliver.

The equestrian events have already been moved to Hong Kong, plans to revamp the tennis centre have been abandoned in favour of building a new, cheaper one, and now it has emerged that the main stadium for the Beijing Games will not have the wonderful roof that was planned, a cutback that will save millions.

The Chinese government will still be spending massively on building roads — Beijing is getting some 56 new ones and resembles a vast construction site with total infrastructure costs of £25 billion — but the organisers of the 2008 Games are, according to Craig Reedie, having “a good hard look at all the facilities they promised”.

Reedie, Britain’s senior International Olympic Committee member who is in Beijing as part of the IOC co-ordination commission, said the changes showed that even this one-party state was sensitive to the needs of its people. “I think this is the reason for the rather noticeable reduction in the scale of the facilities,” Reedie said. “They are cutting things back in terms of sheer scale. They are saving money on some of their facilities. They are doing that because the government is sensitive to the amount of money they are spending.

“The largest part of the population live outside the cities. They now understand that there are disadvantages where they live, as opposed to living in cities, and the government cannot go on spending on cities.”

Reedie said the Princess Royal was opposed to the decision to relocate the equestrian events. “At the time of the bid they were satisfied that they could find a space for a quarantine area but as they came closer to the Games they realised the quarantine area would be absolutely enormous and they decided to move to Hong Kong. Her Royal Highness thinks it is a crazy idea because the weather is tougher for equestrian people in Hong Kong, very sticky in August.”

Chinese officials are determined that there will be no repeat of the huge costs other Olympic cities have incurred. “Beijing will adhere to the principle of ‘frugal Olympics’ in organising the 2008 Games,” Jiang Xiaoyu, the executive vice-president of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games, said recently.

Construction of venues is so advanced that the IOC have asked the organisers to slow the pace of building. Noting the contrast to the Athens Olympics, one Chinese IOC member said they were in danger of setting themselves up for a fall.

“The high expectations have placed Beijing in a position that it cannot afford any minor mistake… a minor fault might be overstated,” He Zhenliang said. “Athens benefited from the contrast in people’s perceptions, but there has not been such a roller-coaster run for Beijing.”

When it comes to the route of the Olympic torch, there will be no half-measures. Yesterday, the Beijing organisers presented their plans for the torch ceremony to the IOC co-ordination commission and I understand they want to take it on a series of spectacular journeys, culminating with a visit to the peak of Mount Everest.

The Chinese have already sent an expedition to the top of the world’s highest mountain and taken photographs of a replica torch to show that the idea is feasible.

The fact that they do not want to follow the Greeks, who took the torch around the world before the Athens Games, has come as a huge relief to the IOC. While, in reality, the Greek torch merely had to travel from Olympia to Athens — which would have been the shortest journey yet undertaken by an Olympic flame — the ambitious Greek plan involved enormous complications.

As one senior IOC member said: “The Greek torch relay cost a fortune. It was paid for by Samsung and Coke for sure. But it also presented enormous strains on national Olympic committees round the world having to organise the relay through their countries.

“Cities like London and Paris that were bidding for 2012 loved it, but cities who were not involved in bidding found it quite difficult.”

Viewers denied the big picture

Freedom of speech is still a highly contentious issue here. There is some evidence that limited criticism of official policies has been aired in the press. One high-powered Chinese journalist even assured me the revelation that drug taking and fake races had marred the recent National Games in Nanjing was evidence of how the press were being allowed to report such events.

Yet during this week’s International Olympic Committee visit the old China reappeared. While the evaluation commission have been visiting Beijing, the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, has been paying a state visit to Britain, where he had lunch with the Queen and was entertained at a state banquet in Buckingham Palace.

Chinese television viewers could see BBC World broadcast clips of the President toasting the Queen and pledging to further democracy in China. But as the BBC cameras panned across the Mall and focused on the crowds protesting against human rights violations in China, BBC World went blank, as though somebody had turned off a switch. I was told that was indeed the case.

Craig Reedie, who turned down an invitation to be at the banquet as he felt it was more important to be in China as part of the IOC evaluation commission, said: “I have always believed one of the reasons they should be given the Games is that it would help open up the country. The challenge they are faced with is to accept that media from all round the world will come, and some of them on the suggestion that they will look only at the sports facilities, but they will also want to look at all sorts of other aspects of Chinese life.

“I think the Chinese government has to understand this is a necessary part of being an Olympic city. I think increasingly they will.”

Yet, for the moment, the man who sits in front of the television screen in Beijing with a switch in his hand does not agree.

© Mihir Bose

Cost-conscious Chinese going back on Olympic promises


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