BEIJING: After seven years of intense preparation, investment and critical assessment since Beijing won the right to stage the Olympics, the athletes are finally set to take center stage here Saturday.
Defining images of many a previous Games have often been provided by astonishing feats from the athletes themselves – be it Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long-jump in Mexico in 1968 or Ben Johnson’s stunning but drugs-assisted display in the 100m final 20 years later in Seoul.
Of course, organizers will hope for more Beamon-like moments rather than any fresh doping controversies of the kind that have become wearily familiar since Canadian sprinter Johnson was stripped of his gold medal.
The chances look slim though with even IOC chief Jacques Rogge saying he expects between 30-40 positive tests.
For all their meticulous planning and $40-billion makeover of Beijing, what happens on the track or on the field is beyond the control of even the Chinese authorities.
Staging the Games is often thought to be a catalyst for improved performance and China, which retains the kind of vast, state-sponsored sports program common in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union, is certainly anticipating a boost up the medal table.
At Athens four years ago, China finished with 32 gold, 17 silver and 14 bronze medals to place second behind the United States.
But if it is to top the table this time around, it will need to dominate those sports where it is traditionally strong – table tennis, badminton and gymnastics – while hoping the effort put into lower-profile events such as beach volleyball also produce podium places.
In athletics, which for all its drugs scandals remains the centerpiece of any Olympics, home hopes of gold rest on the shoulders of defending 110m hurdles champion Liu Xiang and London marathon winner Zhou Chunxiu.
Arguably, the most staggering solo feat being attempted at these Games is Michael Phelps’s bid to win eight gold medals and so break the record of seven golds at a single Olympics set by fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz in Munich back in 1972.
Four years ago, Phelps just fell short of equaling Spitz’s mark, winning six golds although his ‘failure’ would represent unimaginable success for most other Olympians.
“I like challenges. When I make my goals they are all challenges, and I think that I rise to the occasion. I’m excited to have the opportunity to hopefully do that here, Phelphs said.
However, the first golds of these Games on Saturday will not be decided in the futuristic Water Cube but at the shooting range.
China’s reigning women’s 10m Air Rifle champion Du Li is widely expected by millions of her compatriots to deliver the opening gold while later that day world champion Peng Wei is a leading contender in the men’s 10m Air Pistol.
However, China shooting coach Wang Yifu said: “No one can be the favorite because it all depends on how well you shoot that day. It takes just one shot to mess up things.
Even harder to predict is what effect the Games will have in bolstering China’s image abroad, a key aspect for the country’s ruling Communist Party.
“Looking at what is going on with the Olympics, you could say we were a bit naive to think that the Games would have improved our image, said Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Peking University.
But Damian Ryan, a media advisor to several Beijing Olympic sponsors, said: “I think there is a sense now that China, like the other host nations before it, should just get the chance to show what it is capable of. -AFP