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China's introduction to the world

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Where Gao Jun was born and raised, in a town in northern China called Baoding, about two hours away from Beijing, the really good athletes play table tennis. So she did, and as she grew up she got to be very good indeed.

In 1992, playing for China at the Olympics in Barcelona, Gao won a silver medal.

And then she moved to the United States - to Maryland, where in 1997 she became a U.S. citizen. In 2000, she played for the United States, at the Sydney Olympics. In 2004, she again played for the U.S., at the Athens Olympics. And just last month, at age 38, she qualified for the 2008 Games, in Beijing, exclaiming, "It feels great!"

Sometimes, you can go home again - and how, as perhaps the only Chinese-born athlete on a U.S. team at what figures to be an Olympics marking China's symbolic entrée onto the world stage as a first-rate power, Games that by all accounts could well be one of the defining moments in the history of the early 21st century.

"These Games will be one of the most significant of our generation, not just athletically but socially, culturally, environmentally and economically," Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, declared in an address earlier this year in Los Angeles, at a meeting held by the international nonprofit Asia Society.

Ueberroth, who served as chief of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, added an unequivocal and bold prediction.

The 2008 Olympics, he said, "will go down as the greatest Games of all time."

"For China," echoed Gao, "it's the best chance for them to show - for the people to show - the world how good they are and how everything in China is different than before," adding, "I think China will do its best to make these Olympics a great Olympics."

By this time next year, Beijing will be adorned with a new airport terminal, hundreds of miles of new roads and rail lines (100 miles of new roads in 2006 alone, five new subway lines now being built), upgrades to sewer systems and more.

New iconic sports palaces are on the rise, in particular those anchoring a new park called the "Olympic Green." The park sits on a straight line - a purportedly sacred north-south axis - five miles north of Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.

The $450-million, 91,000-seat National Stadium resembles a sculpted-steel bird's next.

A short walk away sits the "Water Cube," the Games' swimming center. A special translucent light-blue skin wrapped around the building makes it look like a cube of bubbles.

The look of those and other venues "took our breath away," the International Olympic Committee's chief liaison to the Beijing Olympics, Hein Verbruggen, told the IOC's all-delegates assembly at its July meeting, in Guatemala.

Projected costs, for everything, according to Chinese officials: at least $38 billion. Precise figures have not been, and are not likely to ever be, disclosed.

By comparison, infrastructure, construction and security costs tied to the 2004 Olympics in Athens are believed to have totaled about $15 billion.

Unlike the run-up to Athens, there seems little doubt that the 16 new, eight temporary and 13 to-be-renovated venues in Beijing will be done on time.

At the same time, behind the scenes, the IOC has for the past year been expressing concerns over the finalization of certain venue designs. And now, as in any large construction project, with the design phase about to shift into operations mode, time is running short.

A series of events, dubbed "Good Luck Beijing," is due to test the venues - 26 such events in 2007, 16 in the first half of 2008.

Enthusiasm for the Games is considerable. More than 530,000 people already have signed up in the hope of being a Games-time volunteer; organizers need, at most, 70,000.

Security issues - a major concern in Athens - have so far amounted to a blip, if that.

Even so, the 2008 Olympics hardly figure to be free of controversy.

Environmental concerns remain vivid, in particular about the air in Beijing. Construction cranes are seemingly everywhere and construction-related dust pervasive. The city is adding 1,000 new cars each day.

In response, Wang Wei, the executive vice president and secretary general of the 2008 Beijing organizing committee, told the IOC assembly that special air-quality monitors are being set up at each Olympic venue. A first report is due in September, to an IOC medical commission.

Meanwhile, the worldwide attention the Beijing Games figure to draw - Ueberroth predicts a global TV audience nearing or surpassing 5 billion people, or five of every six people on the globe - has sparked protests and calls to action by human rights groups and other activists seeking to exert pressure on the Chinese government.

Verbruggen, speaking to the IOC session, said, "The way in which the Games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is often regrettable."

He urged the Chinese authorities to confront issues that "threaten the reputation of the Beijing Games."

How - if at all - the authorities intend to do that remains unclear, even though it's abundantly clear the spotlight is now on.

Ueberroth, speaking in early August to reporters on a conference call, said, a "lot more scrutiny" is "part of the bargain if you take on a Games-so China will face that."

But the message from Chinese officials, those in the Olympic organizing committee and at various levels of government, has - so far - been but a resolute cliché: sports ought not to be mixed with politics.

The "ultimate goal," according to Wang, is "to stage a high-level Olympic Games with distinguishing features."

"We will do our best," Wang said at that same spring Asia Society meeting, "to host a good Games."

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