BEIJING, August 8 – China’s once-in-a-lifetime Olympic dream neared reality Friday as the clock ticked down to the Beijing Games opening ceremony, but gloomy weather and tight security risked dampening the celebration.
Billions of people around the world were expected to watch the spectacular show at the iconic "Bird’s Nest" stadium, an event hyped as a coming out party for a nation whose global power is rising as quickly as its wealth.
"If you are Chinese, you have to be here. This is a 100-year dream come true," said Luo Rensi, 83, a retired international affairs researcher, one of thousands of people who congregated near the Olympic venues on Friday morning.
"China has been through some bad times during my long life, but this is truly the best time."
Famous Chinese film director Zhang Yimou has spent three years creating what promises to be one of the most exciting opening ceremonies ever, which will involve 15,000 performers and finish with a dazzling fireworks display.
True to Olympic tradition, the person who will light the cauldron remains a mystery, with the Chinese press writing off the prospects of China’s two most-loved athletes, basketball hero Yao Ming and athletics champion Liu Xiang.
The ceremony will begin at 8:08 pm on the eighth day of the eight month of 2008, a tribute to the number 8 that many Chinese deem lucky as it represents prosperity.
But potential bad luck loomed as the thousands of athletes who will march through the National Stadium woke on Friday to see heavy clouds and a polluted haze across the city, with showers forecast for later in the day.
Ceremony organisers have long said one of the greatest concerns for the party and the 90,000 people who will attend is rain, while Beijing’s notorious pollution has consistently been a top worry for athletes.
Another worry is terrorism and, for China’s communist rulers, the threat of people taking to the streets to protest over a wide range of grievances.
Amid this backdrop, China enforced sweeping security measures across Beijing and other parts of the country, with thousands of armed police deployed to lock down sensitive parts of the city centre and protect Olympic venues.
More than 100,000 security forces have been called in to scout for any trouble in the city during the Games, amid fresh warnings of terror attacks from Islamic separatists.
Beijing airport was also set to shut down just ahead of the start of the ceremony.
"We have spared no effort in terms of security, in terms of making a safe Games," Wang Wei, the vice president of the Games organising committee, told reporters.
Adding to a surreal feel in the city, the streets were unusually quiet as many of the Chinese capital’s 17 million residents stayed at home after Beijing authorities declared a public holiday.
For China, the Games are an opportunity to show the world how far it has come since the communists came to power in 1949 following a brutal civil war — particularly in the past three decades of its historic development.
During the seven years since Beijing won the right to host the Games, roughly 40 billion dollars has been spent building the venues, expanding transport networks, upgrading other infrastructure and creating parks.
But the Games could equally be remembered for the controversies that overshadowed much of their build-up, including China’s rule of Buddhist Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang, its human rights record and darker aspects of its foreign policy.
Pro-Tibet campaigners and rights activists have been protesting around the world this week to further pressure China’s communist rulers.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders took over a frequency on China’s tightly controlled airwaves Friday in a symbolic protest calling for free speech.
And US President George W. Bush, who is one of about 80 world leaders in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony, made a new plea for freedom of expression in China.
"I strongly believe societies that allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," Bush said at the opening of the new US embassy in Beijing.
China has repeatedly insisted that politics should play no part in the Games, although President Hu Jintao defended his nation’s honour in regards to the Olympics.
"The Chinese government and people have seriously implemented the solemn commitments made to the international society since Beijing won the Olympic bid in 2001," Hu told an audience of world leaders including Bush.