BEIJING (Reuters) - Normally smog-plagued Beijing bathed in blue skies and sunshine on Saturday in just the sort of weather the Chinese pray will grace their Olympics and banish athletes’ health fears six days before the big start.
Experts attributed a rare day of fine weather in the Chinese capital to overnight rain and — finally — the impact of strict anti-pollution measures such as ordering half the cars off the road and closing smoke-belching factories.
“You see, we have done it! You can even see the mountains,” enthused one Chinese student volunteer near the magnificent, newly built “Bird’s Nest” stadium that is the main venue.
Pollution fears have clouded the build-up to China’s biggest international event. Authorities here hope it will show off China’s economic progress and modern face to the world.
About half of Beijing’s 3.3 million cars are off the road, $18 billion has been spent on clean-up measures, and major manufacturers in and around the city have closed down.
Many of the more than 10,000 athletes are, however, delaying arrival for the August 8-24 games until the last minute to avoid bad air.
With the 100 meters sprint usually the biggest race of the Olympics, Jamaican world record holder Usain Bolt confirmed on Saturday he would compete in that as well as the 200 meters.
The decision, communicated to Reuters by his coach, sets up an exciting potential clash on August 16 for the title of ‘Fastest Man on Earth’ between Bolt, former world record holder Asafa Powell, and American world champion Tyson Gay.
Reigning Olympic 100 meters champion Justin Gatlin is serving a four-year ban after testing positive for testosterone.
As well as pollution, another cloud Chinese authorities were seeking to dispel was the international outrage over blocked access to some Internet sites for the visiting media.
Having said the Games should promote rights and democracy in Communist-run China, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was embarrassed last week when arriving foreign media found themselves unable to access politically sensitive sites.
But after talks with the local body, the Beijing Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG), some sites — including Amnesty International and BBC China — were hastily opened.
“There has been an improvement ... this is unprecedented for this country,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said on Saturday.
Other sites, however, such as those related to exiled spiritual group Falun Gong, remained inaccessible, however, to the gathering army of journalists in Beijing.
The usual controls including blocks on BBC’s Mandarin and Deutsche Welle sites were still in place for the rest of the Chinese population.
“We are idealists. Idealism is linked with some naivety,” Rogge replied to a question whether the IOC was naive in thinking China would change its policies towards the internet.
Reporters are expected to total about 30,000 by Friday’s opening ceremony — or three journalists to every competitor.
Even that number, however, is dwarfed by the 70,000 or so mainly young Chinese volunteers in place to shepherd visitors.
At night, fireworks soared and cracked into the Beijing skylines during a second dress rehearsal for what is expected to be the most expensive opening ceremony in Olympic history.
More than $100 million is thought earmarked for the opening and closing pageants — twice that spent on Athens in 2004.
Using a Chinese number symbolizing prosperity, the Beijing Games will open at eight minutes past eight o’clock in the evening on the 8th day of the 8th month in 2008.
To the anger of Chinese authorities, a South Korean TV crew broadcast shots of the first rehearsal last week, showing aerial artists floating over the track, kung-fu formations and whales cavorting round the rim of the steel-latticed Bird’s Nest.
“The ceremony will be astonishing and magnificent,” said Frenchman Yves Pepin, a multimedia events expert who has helped devise the show but is sworn to secrecy on content. “This will be a way for China to show the world what it is capable of.”
With the start of the Athens Olympics notoriously overshadowed by doping scandals, national federations were busy testing athletes to avoid embarrassment in China.
IOC chief Rogge said 17 athletes had tested positive in the run-up to the Games in testimony to its “zero tolerance” policy.
Two Romanian athletes dropped from their Olympic team on suspicion of doping — 1,500 meters runners Elena Antoci and Cristina Vasiloiu — said on Saturday they were retiring.
American swimmer Jessica Hardy also withdrew from the Games after failing a dope test at trials last month, her lawyer said.
The IOC plans to carry out an unprecedented 4,500 doping tests in Beijing, including a new test for the once undetectable human growth hormone (HGH).
Additional reporting by Jason Subler, Crispian Balmer, Karolos Grohmann, Alan Baldwin, Gene Cherry; Radu Timofte in Bucharest; editing by Jon Bramley