The spotlight has been on Beijing since it was selected to host the 2008 Summer Olympics - but there are several other Chinese cities that will serve as competition venues. Among them is Qingdao - the scenic port city where the sailing races will take place. Siska Silitonga was in Qingdao to see how the city is preparing for the games and tells VOA enthusiasm for water sports is grabbing many in the city.

Sun sets behind buildings in eastern port city of Qingdao
When the city of Qingdao is mentioned, many people in China associate it with one thing: its famous beer and the annual international beer festival.

But since 2001, this city in eastern China has something else to be proud of: Qingdao was chosen as the site for the sailing competition when Beijing hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Qingdao is comfortably nestled between mountains on one side and the Yellow Sea on the other. Li Fengli is the deputy secretary-general of the sailing committee of the Beijing Olympic Games based in Qingdao. He says the Olympics mean a lot for this proud city.

"It will be something like a mark pen. We can use this mark pen to mark the city on the world' atlas, to let more people know this is Qingdao," he said. "The sailing events will make Qingdao more famous, more popular in the world ... that means more chances, more opportunities."

Mr. Li says since Qingdao won the right to host the sailing games, investments have been pouring into the city.

Qingdao has already started to build the Olympic sailing center. The venue, which is located at a former shipyard, covers a total area of 45 hectares. The organizers expect the marina to be completed in the first half of 2006.

While the Olympic committee and city planners focus on ways to improve the city's infrastructure, there are growing numbers of Qingdao residents beginning to show an interest in water sports.

It is a foggy, hot and humid day. But, the sailing club at Badaguan in Qingdao still has many visitors. Some of them are just sitting on the terrace, drinking cold beverages while watching a few sail boats bob in the water. Others prefer a more active afternoon - taking wind surfing lessons.

Gao Jiangtao started learning how to surf three months ago. He laughs when asked about his skills.

"At least I could go and sail back safely to shore ... I am just a beginner," he noted.

Mr. Gao works at a bank and is a native of Qingdao. He has been living in this seaside city all of his life. But, he has never tried any water sports before. Now he comes to the sailing club every weekend.

"This is just a way to keep fit for me," he said.

Yan Lei is the manager of the Wind-Catcher sailing club. He says they were one of the first clubs that saw the potential to make money in this industry, and now with the Olympics coming there are many places in Qingdao where Chinese can go and learn water sports.

"Qingdao is now called the 'sailing city.' More and more people are now learning these sports. To be honest, this [interest] is creating jobs in the city," he explained.

But for some Chinese, water sports are still considered an extravagance. A taxi driver in Qingdao never thought of going to a club to learn how to sail. He earns about $300 a month. He says renting a boat is out of his budget.

"I never heard of sailing before. I do not know what kind of sport it is. I found out about sailing when they announced that we are going to be a host for the Olympics," he said.

When asked whether he will go and watch the games in 2008, he worries that the tickets will be too expensive.

Other concerns are being voiced from a different camp. Coaches and managers from some international yacht clubs fear that the August games could be a disaster - since Qingdao suffers from very high humidity and a chronic lack of wind in the summer.

Brian Staite was a coach for Britain's Royal Yachting Association. He came to Qingdao with a sailing team in August 2001. He recalls his experience racing there.

"It was a bit of a nightmare, really," he said. " Obviously any sailing event needs wind, and Qingdao does not have a lot of it at that time of the year. We also have numbers of day with fog, again with no wind. Obviously you cannot go sailing when it is foggy anyway. And the tide is very strong ... it is quite difficult to understand (how to sail there) without a lot of studies on what is going on."

But Qingdao's suitability to hold the games will be tested in the years to come - as the city will play host to a series of international sailing races leading up to the 2008 deadline.

China has also stepped up the training of its own sailing team. Most of the members are from Qingdao. The locals are hoping that the games will not only put Qingdao in the international spotlight, but will also produce some homegrown champions.