BEIJING — BEIJING-- --The Summer Olympics will start at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8 next year. That's 8/8/08, if you don't have a calendar nearby. As you might suspect, eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture. But make no mistake, no one here is about to allow luck or chance to determine the success of these Olympics.
Still more than nine months out, it's already an absolute certainty that we're on the brink of experiencing an Olympic Games unlike any other. Already, you simply cannot escape the Games. Sure, the numerous cranes and tall bamboo scaffolding surrounding many construction sites serve as an ever-present reminder of what's to come. But that's just a small part.
From Tiananmen Square to the ancient hutongs - old Beijing neighborhoods noted for their narrow alleys and open-air courtyards - vendors hawk Olympic trinkets and wares. Throughout the city, countdown clocks are planted in well-trafficked areas, serving as important up-to-the-second counters for everyone who passes.
With a businesslike indifference, the barista in the Starbucks in the Houhai district told me most of the construction you see is related to preparation for the Games. A rickshaw pedicab driver said the same thing, complaining that it's hurting business. But there's good news: By 8/8/08, most of the cranes and tool belts will be gone, and a sparkling, freshly painted, neon-glowing Beijing will be unveiled to the world.
At the Athens Summer Games in 2004, workers were still hammering the final nails into place just as the opening ceremony was beginning. In Beijing, officials say they hope to have construction finished on the venues by the end of the year, and before August they plan to run 44 test events to ensure that each venue is prepared for the Games.
"It actually shows our attitude," Wang Hui, executive deputy director of communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said last week. "We're being very meticulous in terms of preparing for the Games."
To the people of Beijing, next summer's Olympics are about so much more than sports. It's being billed as a coming-out party of sorts, announcing the arrival of an ancient city on the modern-day world stage. The organizers of the Games want to use the Olympics to destroy stereotypes and project a new public image to their global neighbors.
Knowing that, I fully expected to arrive in Beijing and see a city wrapped in construction tape. After all, government types love to host these things and will spare no expense. But you never know about the people. In Athens, by the time the Olympics arrived, it certainly felt like many Greeks had already tired of the hubbub.
"I also witnessed a similar attitude prevailing in Torino," Wang said. "Everybody was pretty exhausted once the Games began. It's quite different for China. We've been dreaming and expecting these Games, anticipating it for over a hundred years."
And since they learned in 2001 that Beijing won the bid to host the Games, the Olympics have been woven into the everyday life of just about every local resident. English is being taught to every grade-school student. Throughout China, textbooks have been passed out in schools and everyone is learning about the spirit, the history and the ideology of the Olympic movement.
We don't need to wait for the overflowing stadiums to measure the excitement. For 100,000 volunteer positions, the organizing committee has received more than a half million applications. And last week, when the second batch of Olympic tickets went on sale, the committee's system crashed. There were 1.85 million tickets available, but the ticketing Web site was slammed with 8 million hits in the first hour, and the ticketing hot line logged 3.8 million calls. Fewer than 50,000 tickets were sold before the system melted down. (The ticket sale was delayed until tomorrow.)
It's good to see that the enthusiasm surrounding the Games resonates as something stronger than a very expensive public-relations ploy. It's good to see that many of the Chinese seem genuinely excited about the sporting aspect. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, so many athletic pursuits were banished, and those who practiced them were exiled to the farming fields, imprisoned - or even worse.
In Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City, I've seen basketball courts crowded with pickup games at all hours of the day and night. In a small neighborhood park just west of Second Ring Road, I gawked at intense and passionate table tennis games. And in a small courtyard area near the Weiming Lake on the Peking University campus, I saw college-aged students playing badminton, continuing even after the sun had set and the shuttlecock was but a barely visible blur.
Around town, everyone knows of Yao Ming, David Beckham appears on billboards, and a new Nike ad has introduced LeBron James to every corner of Beijing. They're already celebrating sport in China, and by next summer, the party will be much bigger.
As Wang said, they've waited more than a hundred years for this. Just nine more months left to go.