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Old 17-08-2008, 08:50 AM
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Post Celebrations, controversies as Olympics enter final week

Celebrations, controversies as Olympics enter final week
by Karl Malakunas
17-08-2008

BEIJING (AFP) - The pollution has lifted, roaring crowds have spurred China to the top of the medals table and athletes have offered warm praise over the near flawless organisation of the Beijing Olympics.


Michael Phelps' historic swimming campaign, the pure joy of Chinese athletes winning home-town gold and Usain Bolt's extraordinary victory in the 100m sprint have been just some of the many reasons to celebrate the Games.

But as the Olympics enter their final week, question marks remain over the spirit in which they have been held -- and whether controls enforced by China's Communist rulers will ultimately overshadow the nation's coming out party.

Wire fences and countless security personnel have sealed off the Olympics from the general public, while the atmosphere inside the secure zones has been often subdued from a lack of entertainment, souvenir shops and restaurants.

"I thought there might be Chinese fireworks, or Chinese food, but it's really lacking," said Australian tourist Andrew Mackenzie, as he stood surrounded by a sea of bare concrete inside the "Olympic Green".

The "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and the "Water Cube" swimming venue are inside the green, a vast domain in the north of the city where fans are meant to congregate and enjoy themselves when not watching the sport.

Instead, spectators are left with little to do but bake in the heat with few shaded areas to rest under, eat instant noodles or bags of chips from sparse food tents, and take photos of the stadia.

Rather than allow a flourish of freedom and fun, the Chinese government has sought to control everything at the green, an attitude that could prove important in defining how the Games in its entirety will be remembered.

Many had already dubbed the Olympics the "No-Fun" Games, as the Communist Party sought to sanitise Beijing.

Thousands of rural migrant workers who spent years building the stadia and many other dazzling new skyscrapers were ordered out of the city, while beggars and hawkers were swept off the streets.

During the first half of the Games, organisers also faced a barrage of media criticism over the faking of parts of the stunning opening ceremony, controversies that highlighted trust issues surrounding the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party refused to allow protests in designated zones as promised, continued to censor the Internet for foreign journalists despite pledging web freedoms, and kept dissidents under house arrest.

"It (the Chinese government) has failed by acting in this way. It has shown the world this is a country that does not respect human rights," prominent dissident lawyer Li Fangping told AFP.

Despite the overarching political concerns, athletes and high-profile visitors have praised the precise organisation of the Games, as well as the state-of-the-art venues, the helpful volunteers and friendly Beijingers.

"I've had a wonderful trip this week. I started off by having a chance to go to the Olympic Games' opening ceremony, and see a lot of those games, which were fantastically managed," Microsoft founder Bill Gates said.

Crowds at some of the events were disappointing in the first half of the Games, particularly after organisers said all tickets were sold out.

But the 91,000-seat Bird's Nest was packed for the start of the athletics competition on Friday and Saturday, promising a week of energy and excitement at the stadium for the highest-profile and most-watched events of the Games.

Athletes reported the Olympic Village being perfectly managed, with the exclusively Chinese-grown food in their kitchens safe and well-cooked.

And the huge concerns over Beijing's toxic air evaporated, thanks partly to last-ditch measures such as taking about one third of the city's 3.3 million vehicles off the road, but also to stormy weather that blew away pollution.

"It was a surprise for me. Where was all the pollution I have read about in the newspapers?" asked Ukrainian heptathlete Ganna Melnichenko. "The sky is blue. It couldn't be better."
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