Athletes village opens under cloud of smog

Beijing, July 27

Basketball icon Yao Ming and more than 200 other Chinese Olympic hopefuls and officials checked into the Athletes Village on Sunday as it opened amid tight security and a shroud of smog.

Beijing Olympic organising committee chief Liu Qi handed the keys of the village to Chen Zhili, a senior communist party official who is the village mayor. “We are delighted to have our first guests - the Chinese Olympic team,” Chen said as she officially opened a village that will house more than 16,000 athletes and officials during the August 8-24 Games.

The announcement triggered an explosion of multi-coloured tinsel and a rush of dancing children dressed as fuwa, the Olympic mascots. But after the ceremony, which was followed by the raising of the Chinese flag, most athletes were bussed out of the village to return to their training camps elsewhere in the city.

“Its too early for them to take up residence yet, because they are still in training,” said Chinese team official Shi Kangcheng.

A small number of competitors from other nations have already moved into the sprawling complex close to the main Olympic stadium, but they have yet to have their flag raising ceremonies.

Athletes from about 10 Chinese teams, including basketball, swimming and gymnastics, attended the ceremony. “We are looking forward to the Olympics, especially because it is in China,” said Huang Yubin, head coach of China’s gymnastics team. “Everyone is in good physical and mental condition and we expect to do very well indeed.”

China announced a delegation of 639 athletes including Yao and reigning 110m Olympic champion Liu Xiang who all pledged to do “honour for the motherland.” The delegation is China’s biggest ever and outnumbers the 596 athletes being sent by the United States, their chief rival for medal-table supremacy.

China finished second to the US in Athens four years ago and are hoping home advantage will help eclipse them this time round. But one potential black mark against the host nation was evident at the village which was shrouded in a thick haze.