Teeming with one-fifth of the world's population, China has long considered the Olympics its destiny. After narrowly losing its bid for the 2000 Games, in part because of the country's human-rights record, revelers turned Beijing's Tiananmen Square into a mosh pit of fist pumping and dancing when news of the triumphant 2008 bid was announced three years ago. The spontaneous celebration helped expunge the uneasy memories of the last time so many people crowded the square, back in 1989, when the student democracy movement was brutally repressed.
Today, Beijing Olympic organizers hope that bloodstained image will be replaced by any one of the monikers they've given their Olympics: the People's Olympics, the High-Tech Olympics, the Green Olympics. Beijing officials have been pushing the last tag most aggressively, promising an environmental makeover that will move polluting factories to the suburbs while decorating large swaths of the capital with commodious greenbelts. But environmental NGOs in Beijing aren't quite as excited, particularly when it comes to plans to ornament the city with lush, water-guzzling lawns instead of tackling the fundamental causes of pollution, such as poorly regulated auto emissions. "They didn't listen to us," says Liang Congjie, head of Friends of Nature. "I'm very disappointed." Liao Xiaoyi, director of the Global Village environmental group, is more circumspect: "It's a very sensitive issue. I can't really talk about it."
The $33.8 billion Beijing is spending on Olympic-related infrastructure is another cause for concern. While construction in Athens was delayed whenever crews uncovered yet another ancient Greek relic that had to be catalogued by preservationists, Beijing's urban planners have reduced entire historic neighborhoods to rubble in preparation for 2008. "We shouldn't destroy all our past to create our future," laments He Shuzhong, director of Beijing-based Cultural Heritage Watch. But the majority of the capital's residents seem to agree with their government's belief that trading crumbling buildings for showcase stadiums, sleek expressways and a $2 billion airport revamp only provides more evidence of their nation's inexorable rise. "The Olympics will serve not only as an impetus for economic development but for the social progress of the whole country," says Liu Jingmin, vice chairman of the Beijing 2008 organizing committee.
Those are high expectations for a single gathering of the world's best jocks. As previous host cities have discovered, development projects on this scale bring with them innumerable headaches—from budget overruns to allegations of financial malfeasance. An investigation by China's National Audit Office this summer found that nearly $16 million in the country's sports funds had been misspent. And last week, organizers announced that construction plans for the 100,000-seat National Stadium, the centerpiece venue, were being scaled back to reduce costs. Last Friday, spokesperson Zhu Jing conceded that major stadium construction will not be completed nearly as quickly as originally expected. Nonetheless, Zhu insists, "There are no big changes. The fundamentals are still the same." And most fundamental of all is ensuring that nothing spoils President Hu Jintao's boast to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge that 2008 will be the best Games in Olympic history.