Beijing Preps For Opening Of Olympics

For the organizers of the Beijing Olympics, Friday's opening ceremony can't come soon enough. They're hoping that a spectacular show and a well-run games will quiet the talk about pollution and China's crackdown on dissidents.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. One day before China's big moment, the Olympic opening ceremonies, a dull haze hung over Beijing.

Tomorrow, thousands of athletes will march into the city's main stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. The Olympic Games provide China with a chance to show the world how much it has achieved in a remarkably brief period of time. But, like the haze, questions about air pollution and strict security crackdowns hover over the festivities.

NPR's Howard Berkes joins us from Beijing to set the Olympic scene for us, and Howard, let's start first with a question of pollution. We know that China's been taking a lot of extraordinary measures to try to clear the air. Has it worked?

HOWARD BERKES: You know, you'd think so with more than a million-and-a-half cars taken off the road, hundreds of factory closed or moved. They've shifted coal-fired power plants to natural gas. They even planted trees to cut dust that flows in from the Gobi Desert, but today, today was one of the worst days we've seen in the week we've been here.

The tops of skyscrapers just a few blocks away, you could hardly see them today, and the latest readings show that there are very high levels of particulates in the air.

Now, Olympic organizers say it's fog and haze and not smog, but my scratchy throat tells me it's more than just fog.

BLOCK: And Howard, this week we saw four members of the U.S. cycling team getting off the airplane there in Beijing with face masks on.

BERKES: With black face masks on, which was considered kind of an embarrassment to the Chinese hosts. The U.S. Olympic Committee has handed out masks to any athletes who want them. We've heard that there are maybe 200 of those handed out. It's considered bad form, though, to actually wear them, and so the cyclists apologized.

You know, what we have here is a situation in which the government had said if things get really bad, they're going to force another million cars off the road, they're going to close factories, but they haven't done any of that, and either they're satisfied with the air quality they see or they've decided they can't take those measures or they're keeping their fingers crossed, and they're hoping it'll rain. And we did have rain last week, and after that rain, we had a couple of very beautiful days.

BLOCK: So they wanted rain last week, but they don't want it tomorrow for opening ceremonies.

BERKES: No, it's really tricky, and they actually have this extensive cloud-seeding program where they say they can change the precipitation patterns. They say they can keep rain from falling on the Bird's Nest Stadium during the opening ceremony - the stadium has no roof - but scientists elsewhere are dubious about that kind of technology.

BLOCK: Howard, what about the protests that have taken place so far in Beijing? We've heard about demonstrators who were arrested outside the Bird's Nest Stadium, also at Tiananmen Square. Are you starting to see a greater show of force out on the street to discourage protests at the Olympics?

BERKES: There is a greater show of force. Today, we saw camouflaged army trucks move into the Olympic green area, where most of the Olympic facilities are located. There were soldiers pouring out of these trucks, but they were armed only with metal detectors. They were sweeping the area, maybe they were checking for bombs or weapons, perhaps in advance of the opening ceremony. There were also dozens of security guards with bomb-sniffing dogs also sweeping the area.

We did see more security fences go up today and more checkpoints as well. Now, the Chinese say they're targeting terrorists, not protestors. They have apparently rocket launchers, but they - we also know that there are thousands of people who've been enlisted to patrol neighborhoods and parks and to report any signs of trouble, and that includes protestors.

I should note, though, that we saw a greater show of force at this point both before the Salt Lake City and the Athens Olympics, where there were soldiers in the streets patrolling with automatic weapons.

BLOCK: Well, opening ceremonies tomorrow, and some events have already started.

BERKES: We've had two days of soccer already. The U.S. women lost to Norway in a first-round game, but that's just the first round. They still have a chance to be in the medal round.

The U.S. men won, and gymnast Morgan Hamm was forced out of the games by an injury. He joins his brother, Paul, who was forced out earlier, but we do have to look forward to Michael Phelps going for that record eight swimming gold medals, and his quest begins this weekend.

BLOCK: And team handball. Don't forget team handball.

BERKES: Team handball. I'm going to have to look that one up.

BLOCK: NPR's Howard Berkes is covering the Olympics in Beijing. Howard, thanks so much.

BERKES: You're welcome, Melissa.

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