Beijing holds its breath
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Beijing's 13 million inhabitants this week began a long, collective intake of breath, to be held for the 90 minutes or so it will take the International Olympic Committee to elect a host for the 2008 Games.
While many Parisians might be more consumed by the Tour de France than their city's 2008 Games bid, and Toronto's residents might be cheerfully crossing their fingers, Beijingers share an intense desire to see the Olympics come to China.
"It is time. We are the most populous nation in the world, we are 1.3 billion people, and we should not be ignored," says Xun Hong Lian.
To Xun and five of his friends, hosting the Olympics is something of a rite of passage for China.
And for them, it was important enough to cycle some 700 kilometers (435 miles) over four days from their home province of Liaoning to the nation's capital.
Along the way they gathered signatures for a petition that they presented on Tuesday to organizers of the Beijing 2008 bid.
The petition simply wished the bid luck, and urged it to succeed.
"I rode so hard and long my body hurts, the weather was very bad at times, but we decided we needed to help the games bid," says Xun.
"What inspired us to do this is not something that can be easily expressed in words, but it's something that pushed us all along."
Although Xun and his fellow cyclists gathered a mere 128 autographs, they consider their pilgrimage a success.
"Even if the bid fails, we will have shown our own kind of Olympic spirit. And I'm sure we will bid again for the 2112 Olympics, and 2116, and every year after that until we get the games."
Beijing's bid organizers say more than 94 percent of the city's inhabitants support the bid, giving it the highest approval rating of all five bidding cities.
Still smarting from their failed attempt in 1993 to secure the 2000 games, when Beijing lost by two votes to Sydney, city officials this time are taking a low-key approach.
Parts of downtown Beijing show evidence of the city's 2008 games aspirations, but there is no fanfare emanating from the main bid office. The bid committee is now in Moscow, working overtime to lobby support from IOC delegates ahead of Friday night's decision.
While many people are confident that this time around Beijing will emerge as an Olympic city-in-waiting, no one can ignore the one dreaded prospect that they may be overlooked again.
"Beijing would be disappointed, I would be disappointed, because they haven't given us a chance," says former resident Chris Chau, who now lives in Hong Kong.
There is a strong sense that Beijing has done more than enough to earn the right to host an Olympics.
"We have consistently worked hard towards this goal, 2008 is the time for us to rise to the occasion. It should be ours," says local resident Zhan Jieyan.
"We believe that Beijing will not disappoint the people of the world."
Beijingers are also eager for their city to be regarded by the rest of the world as a modern metropolis.
"Beijing is an ancient city, but it has come a long way," says resident Yan Xiao Ming. "We can host the games, and should be allowed to prove it."
"There is much to learn about this ancient civilization. Beijing has a glorious cultural history, which cannot be described. If you come to Beijing and see how it still exists in life here, only then can you understand it well."
With a mixture of decaying concrete apartment blocks, traditional Chinese buildings, and modern office buildings, Beijing is at a crossroads.
The steady creep of Western influence is recognizable all over the city; from the Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City to the myriad of McDonalds signs and giant billboards promoting Western multinationals.
Playing basketball in a giant sports store stocked with expensive U.S. and European brands, teenage boys An Gong and Zhang Nan represent something of Beijing's sporting future.
Asked why Beijing should be chosen ahead of its rivals, Zhang says: "Because the people of Beijing are good at sports. Basketball, badminton, football, you name it. We should win the Olympics."
Dashing young men
"Because Beijing has the warmest people," adds An. "The most beautiful city, and the most dashing young men. Our heartfelt wish represents the wish of the entire country, we hope the Olympics come to China."
There is scant street-level discussion of China's human rights record, with most residents arguing the Olympics and politics should not be confused.
Many people argue that those who accuse China of having a terrible human rights record are misinformed and should simply mind their own business.
"The western countries they don't ... tell the truth, so if you don't come to Beijing you don't know what it's like in Beijing and you might know the bad part, the bad aspect. If you have the time, the opportunity to come to Beijing you will see the true Beijing," says Wang Ping Ting.
Some people believe holding the games might help China reform its approach to human rights.
"In the seven years to come I guarantee the Chinese leaders will improve a lot, in every aspect, including human rights. That's the aspect most Western countries are most concerned about," says Chau.
Perhaps more than its rivals, Beijing considers its 2008 games bid as a matter of national pride. Defeat would be perceived as international humiliation.
Come decision time on Friday, the collective breath of 13 million people will be finally exhaled and all of China will be hoping for a sigh of relief, not a groan of despair.
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