Beijing: China’s deadly earthquake has overshadowed the contentious preparations for the Beijing Olympics, generating positive publicity and taking away the stage, at least temporarily from human rights concerns, pro-Tibet demonstrations and Beijing’s noxious air.
The Olympic torch relay begins a three-day suspension Monday, part of an official national mourning period announced Sunday. And more changes seem certain for the highly anticipated Games.
Pomp and ceremony were removed from the relay when the earthquake struck a week ago, and some scaling back might also work into the Olympics itself, where Beijing has invested $40 billion in gleaming infrastructure to show off three decades of soaring economic progress.
“For the Chinese people, the most important thing will no longer be how to protect the image of the Beijing Olympics,” said Ni Jianping, vice president of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies. “Instead the priority will be how to help our fellow citizens to recover,” Ni said. “If China does well on disaster relief, the image of China will also improve.”
It wasn’t clear whether the quake and a death toll expected to reach 50,000 would cause Beijing to alter the games’ lavish opening ceremonies, being designed in secrecy by the country’s most famous film director, Zhang Yimou. A spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Torch relay, a PR exercise that didn’t quite turn out the way it was intended
But the torch relay has been a lightning rod in Beijing’s Olympic preparations. Mostly a public-relations event in other Olympics, the torch has been taken around the world where it ignited rowdy protests over Tibet and human rights and up Mount Everest. It is in the midst of a rapturous, tightly controlled domestic tour with more than 100 stops on the way to the 8August start of the games.
The three-day suspension affects legs in the eastern cities of Ningbo, Jiaxing and Shanghai, China’s business capital, and is the biggest alteration to the relay since the 12May quake.
Beijing Olympic organizers initially resisted changing the relay, which corporate sponsors have paid millions of dollars to fund. But in response to a public outcry and sensing positive public relations, organizers toned down the ceremony and began last Wednesday’s leg in the southeastern city of Ruijin with a moment of silence.
Many of the legs since then have been shortened, with the focus turning away from ceremony and toward commemorations for the dead. Donations have been collected along the run.
The torch relay generated mostly negative coverage abroad. However, the earthquake has generated international sympathy with China welcoming foreign aid from old war-enemy Japan and Taiwan, which split with China amid civil war in 1949. Beijing still regards Taiwan as part of its territory.
The United States has sent in cargo planes loaded with tents, lanterns and meals, and President George Bush delivered his condolences by phone to Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Focus has shifted from the games to rebuilding Sichuan province
“I’m feeling the mood has changed around Beijing,” said Susan Brownell, a leading China sports expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, teaching this year at Beijing Sports University.
“Suddenly the Chinese leadership realizes in the grand scheme of things that the games are not that important and they might question a bit the huge expenditure of money on the Olympics knowing what will be needed to rebuild Sichuan province.”
The 7.9-magnitude quake is China’s deadliest disaster in three decades and rocked skyscrapers in Beijing, 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) from the epicenter. However, the 31 Olympic venues in the city were undamaged. Organizers said six other venues outside Beijing were also unscathed.
Beijing organizers said they consulted with the International Olympic Committee before suspending the relay. “These are tragic and testing times for China and the Chinese people,” the IOC said in a statement. “The way the country has come together in solidarity, and the courage shown by those affected and those involved in the rescue efforts can only be admired.”