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Games Village Opens, But Skies Remain Hazy

Games village opens with fanfare and stars, but skies remain hazy

Martin Zhou – SCMP – Updated on Jul 28, 2008

Organisers of the Beijing Olympics opened the state-of-the-art athletes’ village in the capital yesterday in the presence of the mainland’s top athletes, led by basketball icon Yao Ming and superstar hurdler Liu Xiang .

The fanfare took place under hazy skies, however, and mainland authorities vowed to step up the fight to keep the city’s air pollution within tolerable limits in time for the Games, which open in 11 days.

About 300 athletes, coaches and sports officials stood solemnly in a square in the Olympic Village, northwest of the centrepiece “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, as the Chinese flag was raised to the national anthem, marking the official check-in of the mainland delegation.

After the ceremony, almost all the athletes were bused out of the village to return to their training camps elsewhere in the city.

“Every team has its own training scheme to follow,” said Huang Yubin , head coach of the gymnastics squad. “Our gymnasts will not move in until August 3.”

Earlier in the morning, Chen Zhili , a former Politburo member turned Olympic Village mayor, presided over the inauguration of the complex, consisting of a 42-block residential compound and a vast recreational area.

A small number of competitors from other nations have moved into the sprawling village, but they have yet to have their flag-raising ceremonies – giving the host team the privilege of being first to raise their flag, in keeping with Olympic tradition.

The national team is also widely expected to shoot into first place on the medals table after selecting a 639-strong squad of Olympians – its biggest to date, and even larger than perennial Games superpower the United States. The Americans won slightly more gold medals than the national team at the last summer Games in Athens.

However, one potential black mark against the host nation was also evident at the village – a thick shroud of haze. The city’s daily air quality index, issued by the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau, rated the capital’s smoggy skies as “slightly polluted” yesterday.

Asked whether authorities would step up their battle against pollution, bureau deputy director Du Shaozhong answered with a resounding “yes”.

Beijing has sidelined up to 2 million of the city’s 3.3 million cars through a daily, odd-even plate policy applied to private motorists, and unprecedented tough restrictions on government vehicles.

Authorities have also scaled down production at pollution-heavy industries, and ordered a ban on construction at city-centre sites.

“In case of extreme weather conditions that impede dissipation of the pollution, we are preparing even more stringent measures,” Mr Du said at his third session of questioning on the air-quality issue by international media in as many days.

A bureau official said details of the new plan would be announced early next week, and could be implemented after the Games open on August 8.

“Under the additional emergency measures, only 10 per cent of the cars would be allowed to remain on the streets, while the traffic controls would expand into neighbouring provinces,” the official said. “Construction sites in the capital could also face a blanket ban.”

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