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Aug 1, 2015 4:50 AM

Having made Olympic history, Beijing faces challenges

The Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) Having made history as the first city to win hosting rights for both the Summer and Winter Olympics, Beijing now faces a slew of challenges, from ensuring adequate snow in a bone-dry region to ramping up support for winter sports in a nation where few people ski or skate.

Human rights criticisms and demands to loosen restrictions on the Internet and reporters will also test the bounds of tolerance for the authoritarian communist state.

Celebrations of Friday's win were muted in Beijing a stark contrast to the dancing-in-the-streets euphoria the city witnessed in 2001, when it won the 2008 Summer Games. The Winter Olympics are a much smaller and less popular event, but China has a special challenge in that few of its citizens know or care about winter sports, despite a recent increase of interest in skiing, skating and ice hockey among the rising middle class.

Elsewhere, fireworks were lit in the mountain town of Chongli, future host of Nordic skiing and other events, which anticipates an economic boom from the games.

"We're going to see big changes here. Our guests yesterday were really happy about winning the bid and many are interested in investing and buying houses in Chongli," said a desk manager at a local hotel, the No. 66 Holiday Inn, who gave only her surname, Liu.

Beijing says holding the games will unlock a potential winter sports market of 300 million people in the country's north, although only a fraction would have the means to travel to increasingly pricey Chongli to ski. As a start, the government last month announced a $30 million program to promote winter sports such as luge, bobsledding and Nordic combined.

In Chongli, venue construction will require the relocation of around 1,800 residents of outlying villages, with the government offering a selection of compensation measures.

However, the overriding concern of the IOC and sports federations has been the area's ability to produce enough artificial snow to augment the meager natural snowfall. That's all the more acute because of water stresses in the region that already diverts significant resources from agriculture to slake the thirst of Beijing's 21 million residents.

In a 2014 report, the United Nations said water resources per person in northern China amount to only 200 cubic meters per year, "only one fifth of what is conceived as a safe standard." The IOC itself, in its evaluation report, said it felt Beijing had underestimated both the amount of water needed and its ability to recover runoff from the slopes.

Despite that, Beijing's bid was based on assurances it can generate enough snow without causing disruptions to the lives of ordinary citizens. Whatever the case, strong government backing should eliminate any obstacles.

Back in Beijing, organizers say holding the games will add momentum to plans to clean up the capital's notorious air pollution by removing highly polluting vehicles from the streets, closing aged factories and reducing the amount of coal burnt by 75 percent.

That's a potent challenge, given the city's continuing expansion, although the government has become increasingly responsive to the threats pollution poses to health, development and quality of life.

With many venues left over from the 2008 games and a cadre of experienced managers in place, staging the actual games shouldn't require much additional effort.

Yet, despite all of Beijing's organizational strengths and commercial acumen, it has yet to devise a formula for handling the sensitive questions of human rights and the media that the IOC says are integral to a successful games.

Critics say China is in the throes of the biggest crackdown on civil society advocates in years, with more than 250 lawyers representing clients in civil rights cases rounded up and detained.

Longstanding blocks on foreign websites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, remain in place, although bid organizers offered vague pledges that they would be lifted during the games.

While the IOC says it won assurances over non-discrimination, Internet access, media freedom, labor rights and the right to demonstrate during the games, President Thomas Bach conceded its powers were limited.

The IOC "is not a world government," he said.

Shortly after Friday's announcement, groups supporting activists for minority, human and civil rights expressed dismay over the IOC's decision, saying it merely rewarded Beijing's bad behavior.

"This decision will further harm China's most vulnerable groups and also undermine what remains of the IOC's credibility," the group Human Rights in China said in a statement.

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, was equally dubious about the assurances on offer.

"China's record on press freedom and human rights is not one that deserves to be rewarded. The success of the 2022 Winter Olympics will depend not just on venues and ratings but also on respect for human dignity as enshrined in the Olympic Charter."

China's approach post-2008 doesn't offer much cause for optimism. After lifting a demand that permission be obtained to report outside Beijing in 2007, the government ratcheted up surveillance of foreign media in 2011 amid fears the Arab Spring pro-democracy sentiments would spread to China.

Reporters traveling independently to Chongli ahead of Friday's announcement were trailed by unknown individuals in cars with blacked-out windows, a common practice among local governments suspicious of outside scrutiny.


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