The long-awaited and somewhat controversial Beijing Olympics officially open Friday. From the Chinese capital, VOA's Jim Stevenson has this preview of the 29th Olympiad.
A lavish opening ceremony and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron will formally begin the Beijing Games, even though the men's and women's football (soccer) tournaments have already kicked off so that they will conclude just before the end of the Games on August 24.
Controversy has followed China since the communist nation was chosen by the International Olympic Committee to host the Games seven years ago. Political issues, pollution and the ability of the media to freely report have all proven contentious in the years and months leading to the Olympics.
But China is hoping that the criticisms will quickly fade and be replaced by the thrill and spectacle of arguably the greatest sports event in the world. The theme is "One World, One Dream," which calls upon the world to unite in the Olympic spirit.
U.S. women's soccer veteran Kate Markgraf says the athletes are only focused on that spirit.
"The one thing that can not be overshadowed is the Olympic spirit," she noted, "is the great stories coming out of the Olympics, is the heart and desire of teamwork and personal success, overcoming adversity."
About 10,500 athletes will compete in 302 events in 28 sports, just one event more than was on the schedule four years ago in Athens, Greece. The men will compete in 165 events. The women have 127 events, while 10 are mixed events.
China won 32 gold medals in 2004, four fewer than the Americans. To surpass the United States as the top gold-winning country, China's state-run sports schools have been targeting relatively obscure sports such as shooting, women's weightlifting, rowing, boxing and cycling.
Steve Roush of the U.S. Olympic Committee describes China's ambitious push to dominate this Olympiad.
"They went out and targeted sports that totaled 119 medal opportunities back in 2002," he explained. "And they funded them significantly for targets for getting on the (medal) podium in 2008. And 119 medal opportunities in sports where they can get two or three in each."
The mascots of Beijing 2008 are the five Fuwa, or good luck dolls. The fish, giant panda, fire, Tibetan antelope and swallow roughly correspond with the five elements of Chinese philosophy, and also bear the colors of the five Olympic rings.
China has 37 overall venues after building 12 new facilities, renovating 11, and erecting eight temporary locations. About 25,000 members of the media from around the world are covering the games.