Beijing’s Olympics: one year to go

August 8 marks one year until the 2008 Olympic Games begin in Beijing.

Standing on the street in the Chinese capital, can you tell? Yes and no.

Construction cranes still tower over the city, and building continues apace, but that’s not a significant change over the past 10, or even 20, years. Every day, more new cars come onto Beijing’s streets, an estimated 700 to 1,000 per day, and with them, a Dickensian haze that regularly covers the city.

June 2007 saw the worst air quality for that month in seven years. When are the opening ceremonies again?

Beijing announced it would ban a million vehicles — one-third of the city’s cars — from Aug. 7 to Aug. 20 as a trial run for next year, but caught once again in traffic this morning, I can’t say I noticed a difference. A car-owning friend of mine said she hadn’t heard anything about restrictions.

New subway lines planned for the games, designed to take the pressure off of surface roads and finally give the city the underground it has desperately needed for years, will not open until next year.

The capital’s long-stated goal of having English-speaking taxi drivers in time for the event seems no more than a pipe dream.

Beijing’s cabbies are among the rudest and most ignorant in China, a situation that has seen little progress in the last 10 years.

Barring a raid on local universities’ English departments and a fast course in driving and Beijing geography, would-be Olympic visitors should bring phrase books and stick to public transportation as much as possible.

Olympic merchandise is everywhere, and China’s media buzzes with mentions of the games. China’s medal hopefuls, like hurdler Liu Xiang and diver Guo Jingjing, were snapped up by sponsors long ago, and their images adorn Coke cans and plenty of other products.

In terms of technology, many question marks remain about what Beijing will offer during the games. With one year to go, China still has not issued 3G (third generation) telephony licenses.

All indications are that China will use its own TD-SCDMA (time division synchronous code division multiple access) 3G technology, and that instead of a broad roll-out, its deployment will be limited in terms of both geography and scale.

Also discussed is citywide wireless Internet, which may be more of a move towards 4G (fourth generation) than just a stop-gap implementation.

One year off, China still has a lot of work to do. Having set expectations for the games so high, both for China’s vast population and for an expected half-million foreign visitors, not to mention billions of television viewers, one wonders if it isn’t setting itself up for disappointment.

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