Hours before 1.3 billion people wake up on Friday to realise a 100-year-dream, the Olympic torch scaled the 2,000-year-old Great Wall on its journey to the symbol of modern China: a futuristic stadium built with 36 km of steel.
From the supposedly auspicious moment of 8.08 pm (5.38 pm India time) on 08.08.08, Beijing plans to dazzle the world with a three-and-half hour show of over 15,000 performers straddling ancient and modern China, to symbolically announce the nation’s coming of age as a world power.
The 29th Olympic Games with over 10,000 athletes and half a million visitors (among them Congress president Sonia Gandhi, accompanied by Rahul, Priyanka and Robert Vadra and their two children) converging in Beijing from Friday to August 24, will be the most controversial in recent history. The opening and closing gala is estimated to cost China about 100 million dollars.
But grey haze still covered the capital that its own residents cannot recognise after a seven-year Olympian makeover bulldozed swathes of the city’s historic neighbourhoods. Rainfall is predicted over the roofless stadium, which will be guarded by missile launchers and armed security.
Pollution levels fell this week, but the weather could still spoil the show when over 30,000 fireworks — some in the shape of smileys and dragons — will be shot from 1,800 sites across Beijing’s new skyline.
The opening ceremony will be a ‘Chinese story told in the world’s language,’ said an official Zhang Heping.
The show will begin to the beat of Chinese drums and recent leaks suggest performers will fly suspended over the audience.
Delegations from 205 nations will enter the stadium in the ascending order of the number of strokes used to write country names in Chinese. So Guinea will enter behind Greece which will lead the parade. Zambia will enter before China. India has sent a 57-member delegation, minus its men's hockey team.
International pressure on communist China to improve its human rights record also stepped up before the opening. In Bangkok, US president George Bush, the first sitting US president to attend an Olympics opening ceremony abroad, said that China should trust its people with greater freedom.
Bush spoke up for a 'free press, freedom of assembly and the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings.''
But nationalism in Beijing is at its highest ahead of Friday's moment of glory, after a turbulent 2008.
China kept mega Olympic preparations on track while grappling with the worst anti-China protests in two decades in Tibet in March, and an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed almost 70,000 in southwest Sichuan in May.
"We don't pay attention to western nations' criticism. They don't understand us,'' Hindi professor Jiang Jingkui at the Centre for India Studies of Peking University told Ht on Thursday.
"Most Chinese today have enough food to eat, a place to sleep. That's human rights."
The 100-year dream slogan finds its origin in 1908, when Tianjin magazine posed the question to the Chinese people: when can China host the Olympic games. The answer has come 100 years later.