Stepping out of the shadows- Road to Beijing

The Olympic thrusts Beijing front and center on the world stage

There's a reason the 2008 Summer Olympics begin here at exactly 8:08 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month. In the Cantonese dialect, the words for "eight" and "fortune" rhyme. Eight is the ultimate lucky number.

And it is fortune this country of 1.3 billion people hopes for as it steps into the world spotlight for the next 17 days. The efforts of a state-run and medal-hungry sports machine — combined with the hospitality of 70,000 volunteers standing ready at the gates of the National Stadium (better known as the "Bird's Nest") and at the "Water Cube" swimming center — could earn Beijing and China glowing reviews as a producer of world-class events.

The pressure is on: At $40 billion, Beijing spent twice as much money preparing for the Olympics than did the hosts of the past three Summer Games combined. (Athens invested $12 billion in 2004, Sydney $6 billion in 2000, Atlanta $2 billion in 1996.)

Artists and athletes also are under the gun: Director Zhang Yimou, whose most recent film "Curse of the Golden Flower" stands as China's biggest homemade hit, must feel the pressure to deliver an equally memorable Opening Ceremony. If hurdler and household name Liu Xiang wins gold, he's a hero for the ages.

The stakes are huge as well for China Central Television. Waiting in the control room at the gleaming annex of CCTV's new Rem Koolhaas-designed headquarters among hundreds of producers and technicians is Jiang Heping, GM of the Olympic Channel, also known as CCTV-5.

He believes the largest broadcaster in the world by audience size has never undertaken such an effort, but he's cautious, no longer boasting about the best Games ever.

"If we can fulfill 80%-90% of our plans, then we will have done an excellent job," says Jiang, who months ago was forced to give up table tennis, which served as his daily hour of stress relief. "I've had no time. But everything is under control."

Commercial sponsors carpet the airwaves. Nonofficial sponsors take up billboards, buses, benches. Red flags snap in the wind from nearly every taxi antenna. Houston Rockets center Yao Ming passes under the giant portrait of Chairman Mao as he delivers the beleaguered Olympic torch, at last, to Tiananmen Square.

For the first four hours of the Olympics, the new national airport will close, though organizers and the government gave no reason why. The Internet in the Main Press Center will be turned off, blocking reporters from referencing the myriad online protests planned. A crew of 50 producers using 10 unilateral cameras in the 80,000-seat Bird's Nest will try to capture live the wow factor presented in fireworks to world citizens, including, to name just one, President Bush.

How China will fare amid the global focus is complicated by ample distraction. There have been seven years of doubts that China's capital could pull it off and protests that the Communist government might do so at the expense of human rights and the environment. But today, Beijing's 15 million citizens can put out of their minds for good Steven Spielberg, Sudan, pollution and Tibet.

Already, there have been surprises. SBS, a broadcast rightsholder from South Korea, sneaked a camera into a dress rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony last week, taping and broadcasting it. At least one person recorded it and posted it to YouTube.

What a long way China and Chinese broadcasting have come since the 1995 World Figure Skating Championships. That's when American Michelle Kwan, a skater of Chinese descent, went blade to blade with China's Chen Lu live on the air in one of the first big events captured by CCTV-5.

"Sports TV was a joke back then," says Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has been studying sports in China since 1985. "They had only one camera to go to events, and the quality was so bad."

Does Jiang think that the Olympics will change Chinese TV forever?

"I'm not so sure of that," he says. "The Olympics can play a part in promoting the Chinese awareness of the Olympics and further promote the awareness of TV professionals to be in line with the international rules and regulations of events of this grand scale."

Despite fraught negotiations with world broadcasters over issues like permission to shoot live from Tiananmen Square, Jiang says CCTV has no problems cooperating with other broadcasters. All attend a daily briefing during the Games to address concerns.

Would there be, as rumored, a technical delay of two or three seconds to the signal going out to the world to prevent, perhaps, the broadcast of a sports fan-cum-protester successfully unfurling a banner saying "Free Tibet," or something like that?

Says Jiang: "No, there will be no technical delay. We don't have the means to do it. It will be an actual live signal. A two- or three-second delay means nothing. We adopted policy to do actual live."

What circumstances would cause a delay? "The circumstances of a protest that should be condemned by all international society. This would violate IOC charter rule 51," Jiang says.

Indeed, it would break the International Olympic Committe rule against blending politics with sport, but would there be a delay? "No," he insists.

Rowan Simons, probably the only wai guo ren (read: "foreigner") ever to call English Premier League matches on Chinese television in Chinese, says the Olympics have clarified something crucial for CCTV as China moves to join the world community.

"The Olympics have crystallized the difference between domestic and international news and sportscasting," says Simons, founding director of China Media Monitor, a Beijing-based consultancy.

"Now CCTV-9, the international channel, and CCTV-4, the overseas Chinese channel, see how the world expects a news channel to behave and are modeling their feature programming around the Games after the BBC and CNN." (partialdiff)