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China Marks Olympic Anniversary, Reflects on Olympic Legacy

China marked the one year anniversary of its hosting of the Olympic Games by naming August eighth a national sports day and holding festivities outside its iconic Olympic landmark - The Birds Nest. China has proven it still knows how to put on a show, what is not as clear, is how the legacy of the Games will continue to evolve.

Nearly 34,000 practitioners of Tai Chi, a slow-moving meditative martial art, gathered outside the Birds Nest on Saturday to mark China's inaugural National Fitness Day, and set a new Guiness World record as they did.

Much like the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the event was a display of mass unity, with participants, a sea of men and women dressed in silk white gowns, moving in unison.

As Beijing looks back at its Olympic legacy, one of the biggest challenges it faces is dealing with the 36 venues it spent more than 40 billion dollars to build.

On Saturday night, Chinese soccer fans watched Italian soccer teams Lazio and Inter Milan play at the Birds Nest stadium. The game was the first time a sports event was hosted at the stadium since the Paralympics, which followed the Summer Games last year.

Many venues are struggling under the weight of hefty maintenance costs and financing payments, and their future is in question. The Bird's Nest and Water Cube aquatic center are two venues that seem to be making do by improvising and turning them into tourist attractions.

Managers of the Water Cube say it will eventually be transformed into a multipurpose leisure center, featuring a water park and a recreation center with spas, and a shopping area.

Aside from hosting an occasional music concert, the 80,000 seat Birds Nest has largely become a backdrop for those wishing to explore the massive facility or have their picture taken standing on the winner's podium with an Olympic torch or flowers in hand.

Albert Ng, CEO of Wild China, a travel agency based in Beijing, says the Olympics have helped stir up more interest in modern China and how the country is looking toward the future. He says tours to see new architecture and art and culture zones in Beijing are on the rise.

"It's quite interesting because a few years ago most people were just interested in seeing the old China, the imperial China, but now there is much more interest and focus on the new China," he said.

Earlier this year, a tourism survey by Beijing authorities found that the Bird's Nest was the most popular tourist site in the capital, even surpassing more traditional attractions, such as the Forbidden City.

Frank Sha, a senior consultant with Zou Marketing, a sports branding company based in Shanghai, says that demand is strong among Chinese consumers for big events like Saturday's soccer match. What is lacking is the people to make such events happen regularly.

Sha says the good thing about the Olympics was it opened the eyes of Chinese companies to the power of brand marketing. But he adds the post Olympic environment has been rather cold.

"It's kind of a little bit cold. I've seen maybe only a few athletes after the Olympics really doing some commercials for brands. Not really as many athletes as we expected following the Olympics," Sha said.

As August eighth arrived, China publicly reflected on its first anniversary of the games through state-media news reports and articles. One opinion piece mocked those it called the "politically -minded" who it said wished that the historic occasion would help to bring about changes that suit their own tastes.

The article noted that the Beijing Games had brought cleaner air and better transportation to the nation's capital and raised the quality of life there.

At its conclusion the piece suggested the world should celebrate a more confident, accommodating, and responsibility-conscious China.

The state-run China Daily highlighted China's efforts to give foreign media more access to covering the news, calling that change the legacy of the Olympics.

Scott McDonald, president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in China agrees that authorities have been working to improve conditions for journalists.

"You could say things have improved, in that the government did make permanent the relaxed ruling conditions that had been brought in for the Olympics," McDonald said. "Those rules allow reporters to travel to different areas of the country, except Tibet, without getting prior approval."

McDonald says that there have been more press conferences and notes that in the wake of the recent riots in Xinjiang the government set up a press center there for reporters.

Still, problems remain.

"There are still incidences of people harassing sources, sources are phoned up or local officials sometimes follow reporters out and stand nearby while reporters are trying to interview sources," McDonald said. "Sometimes the news assistants are called in to ask what their employers are doing."

One long term problem, which was a major concern going into the Olympics, was the quality of the air in Beijing.

In the run-up to the games, Beijing took drastic steps to prevent its notorious smog from overshadowing the Olympic games and threatening athletes as well as spectators. Factories were moved or cleaned up, special traffic measures were put in place and all construction work was ordered to halt.

The result, some say, was progress.

Chinese officials say that in the first seven months of this year, Beijing has enjoyed its best air quality this decade. Officials say there were 171 days of low pollution from January to July, 22 more than in 2008.

A United Nations Environment Program report released earlier this year says that China's massive efforts helped reduce pollution by 36 percent during the games.

The real question for those who live in Beijing, however, is whether or not the efforts are long-lasting. Some long time residents remark that the air does seem to be getting better. But, they add, that does not mean the smog has gone away.