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Hong Kong Prepares For Equestrian Olympics

For horse lovers, the main event of the Olympics is the equestrian competition - and that will be held in Hong Kong, not Beijing. In Hong Kong, Claudia Blume has this report on preparations for the biggest sport event ever hosted in the city.

It's happening in Hong Kong, not only in Beijing - the Olympics that is. This television commercial, featuring international movie star Jackie Chan, was produced by Hong Kong's tourism board to promote the equestrian events in the city.

Organizers of the Olympics moved the equestrian competition here because Beijing and other mainland Chinese cities could not guarantee disease-free zones for the horses. Lam Woon Kwon, chief executive of the company that organizes the equestrian Olympics, says Hong Kong, by contrast, meets international veterinary standards.

"Hong Kong of course has an international reputation of being a clean city in terms of quarantine for horses," Lam said. "We haven't had any major horse disease for more than 16 years - so we are a very clean city, so people have confidence in us."

Unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong also has a lot of experience organizing horse races. The city's Jockey Club has been around for more than 100 years. The Club spent $150 million to build new facilities and training venues for the Olympics, including an 1800 seat arena and new stables for over 200 horses.

More than 200 riders and horses are expected to compete in the Olympics, which will be followed by the Paralympics with about 75 participants. All horses will be flown in. Dressage and jumping events will be held in the Jockey Club's Sha Tin race course, close to the border with mainland China. A golf course was converted into a cross-country course.

While athletes do not have to worry about diseases, and pollution is less of a problem here than in Beijing, there are other challenges. The main worry of many participants is Hong Kong's sweltering summer heat and extreme humidity, which can reach up to 80 percent in August. But the organizers are well-prepared. Gerald Kuh, jumping manager for the equestrian Olympics, describes how new state-ot-the-art stables will keep horses cool.

"This will all be air-conditioned. We will set the temperature at 23 degrees Celsius," he said. "And you see this isolation here is to keep the temperature consistent everywhere so it won't be colder on this end and hotter on that end - it comes out, you know, through the stable."

Both venues also have large so-called misting tents, where huge fans blow icy sprinkles of water on the horses, allowing them to cool down after a race.

Mr. Lam says the venues are also able to cope with strong tropical downpours, which often occur in August.

"We built a top-of-the range drainage system that is extremely important - which means that even after a heavy downpour we can resume the games as soon as we possibly can," Lam explained.

Mr. Lam says that participants in last year's international test races were happy with the facilities. Only the Swiss dressage team pulled out because of concerns about the weather conditions.

Hong Kong authorities say the security threat level for the Olympics in the city is moderate. The Hong Kong police will deploy about four thousand officers to guard the equestrian competition. Ahead of the Olympics, police in Hong Kong held a large joint operation with colleagues in Southern China against organized crime in the area. More than 16-hundred people were arrested.

Police officials say they spent two years to draw up a security plan for the event, and recently held discussions with local activists to work out the logistics of potential demonstrations.

The former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, enjoys civil liberties not available in other parts of China, including freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. But ahead of the Olympic torch relay in Hong Kong in May, immigration officials had turned away several pro-Tibet activists, sparking protests from human rights groups. Asked at a press conference whether protesters will be allowed to display Tibetan flags, Hong Kong's police commissioner Tang King-shing gave a carefully-phrased answer.

"About demonstrators using any flags, or banners or equipment or whatever - I think each and every case has to be considered on its own merit and according to the individual circumstances. Our ultimate objective is to ensure peace and safety," Tang said.

At Hong Kong's Olympic venues, flags, banners, leaflets and other materials pushing political and commercial causes will be banned - in accordance with the Olympic charter. Organizers say spectators wearing T-shirts with political slogans will be asked to change their clothes or leave the venue.

Most people in Hong Kong are looking forward to the event, such as this young man.

"Olympics in Hong Kong is very great, is very good! I think for Hong Kong, for everybody, it's good news," said Lam Woon Kwon, chief executive of the company that organizes the equestrian Olympics says Hong Kong. The company has hosted many international events, such as the meeting of the World Trade Organization in 2005, but never a major sports competition. He says it is an honor for Hong Kong to co-host the Beijing Olympics.

"And also the historical meaning is that we are for the first time ever, after the return of the sovereignty to China, we are hand in hand with Beijing and Qingdao showcasing the new face of China," Lam said.

The coastal city of Qingdao, where the sailing events will be held, is the second major co-host of the Beijing Olympics.