Beijing 2008: 10 facts about the Olympics
From Britons going for glory to the constant threat of doping scandals; from choking smog to open water; Simon Turnbull delivers his reasons to be cheerful or fearful about Beijing
1. The smog
Not to be confused with John Carpenter's "cult classic" movie of 1980, featuring Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother, Janet "Psycho" Leigh. That was simply The Fog, the story of a glowing "killer fog" containing zombie-like creatures that terrorised a north Californian fishing community. The Smog, however, will do much the same to the 10,500 participants in the Beijing Olympics – if the pre-Games horror stories are to believed, that is.
The Chinese capital does happen to boast (if that is the correct term) the world's most toxic air, with levels of toxins some 12 times above the "safe" level set by the World Health Organisation. The Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebrselassie, an asthmatic, has decided not to risk contesting the event in which he holds the world record, the marathon, and will run in the 10,000 metres instead. By happy coincidence, this will also allow him to run in the lucrative Berlin Marathon next month.
2. Beijing National Stadium
Sydney had its Harbour Bridge and its Opera House as a backdrop to the triathlon races at the 2000 Games. Athens had its ancient marble Panathinaiko Stadium as a classic setting for the archery and the finish to the marathon races in 2004. London in 2012 will have its... well, let's just see what happens to be standing in the East End come 27 July that year, 1,456 days from now.
In the here and now, Beijing has its National Stadium as the stunning centrepiece to the 2008 Games: the Bird's Nest, as it has been christened, because of its latticed outer structure, or the Bee's Knees, as the architectural world has proclaimed. Acclaimed as "the Most Innovative and Progressive International Design" in the 2007 London Design Museum Awards, the 91,000-seat arena was fashioned by Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss firm that transformed Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern in London.
In the words of Mr Mackey, the chief educationalist and hand-puppeteer in South Park: "Drugs are bad, m'kay." Sadly, unlike Eric Cartman and his cartoon pals, some Olympians did not have the benefit of attending a seat of learning of quite the same moral rectitude as South Park Elementary. Three of the last five winners of the men's 100 metres, the blue riband event on the Olympic track and field programme, have subsequently tested positive for performance-enhancing substances.
The blight of drugs has been needling the Games since Thomas Hicks won the 1904 marathon in St Louis fuelled by liberal doses of strychnine. It will be big news if the Beijing Games produced more of the same – or, even more stunningly, a clean sheet. Don't hold your breath on the latter score. Only yesterday seven leading Russian athletes were suspended because of suspected tampering with drug-test samples.
4. Michael Fred Phelps II
We have been this way before.
Back in 2004, Michael Phelps was supposed to consign Mark Spitz's record haul of seven swimming golds from a single Games to the Olympic equivalent of Davy Jones' locker. He could manage only six golds and two bronzes – loser. Well, he was only 19 at the time. Four years on, the 6ft 7in human amphibian from Baltimore is having another crack at matching or bettering the Fort Knox collection amassed by his American predecessor at the Munich Games in 1972 – back in the days when men were men, and women were quite often men too, thanks to the Eastern Bloc drugs system.
Phelps will be going for gold, gold, gold, gold, gold, gold, gold and gold using a full-length body suit designed using Nasa technology to make it water-repellent and drag-resistant. Spitz, by contrast, had his bog-standard Speedos and his decidedly unaquadynamic 1970s moustache.
5. Laoshan Velodrome
Or Little Britain, as it might well be rechristened by the time the track cycling programme concludes. At the World Track Championships at the Manchester Velodrome in March, Britannia ruled the boards, finishing way out in front in the medals table with a haul of nine golds and two silvers. After the gold rush on home ground, another rich harvest is expected in this western corner of the Chinese capital. Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Romero, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy all start as favourites.
Britain's pedal-pushers have done some impressive evolving since that chimp crashed out in the Tour de France in that television advert of yore, the one whose roadside female admirer was moved to observe, "J'aime votre PG Tips, Monsieur." Now it is Britain's track cyclists who are making chimpanzees out of the rest of the world.
6. Tom Daley
There was disappointment toward the end of the summer term at Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth. Sports day was cancelled "due to bad weather". For Tom Daley there was no egg-and-spoon race, then. Still, he does have the Olympic Games. A European champion as a 13-year-old in March this year, the Eggbuckland pupil goes for Olympic diving gold at the grand old age of 14. Not that he happens to be the youngest ever summer Olympian from these shores; Margery Hinton was 13 when she swam for Britain in 1928, and Kenneth Lester was the same age when he competed in the coxed pairs rowing in 1960. The question is, though: how did young Tom manage to get selected, given the preponderance of diving talent available to the British selectors? Surely Jürgen Klinsmann qualifies on the grounds of historical White Hart Lane residency, and the gravitationally challenged Francis Lee is only 64.
7. Natalie du Toit
Unlike her more celebrated compatriot, Oscar Pistorius, the so-called "Blade Runner," Natalie du Toit has actually made it to the Beijing Olympics to fly the flag not just for South Africa but for disabled athletes. She was 17 when her left leg was amputated below the knee; she had been riding her scooter to school when a car crashed into her. Sixteen months later she swam at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, reaching the final of the 800m freestyle. Six years on, now aged 24, Du Toit qualified for the 10km open water race in Beijing after finishing fourth at the Open Water World Championships in Seville in May. Not that she will be the first amputee to compete in an Olympic Games. George Eyser, winner of three gymnastics gold medals for the US in St Louis in 1904, had a wooden left leg. The original limb was amputated after he was run over by a train.
Yes, what next: Olympic skateboarding or paintballing? We might be scoffing now, but BMX could become the new curling in the patriotic eyes of the British sporting public. Like Rhona Martin and her rink-sweeping champions from the Salt Lake Winter Games of 2002, Shanaze Reade is likely to have the television audience back home following her every move around the 350m humped and hollowed course next to the Laoshan Velodrome.
The 19-year-old from Crewe has not lost a BMX race since taking up the sport 10 years ago. Bicycle Motocross, to use its formal title, is a new addition to the Olympic summer programme. Sports that have fallen by the wayside down the years include rugby union (last held in 1924, won by the US) and cricket (last held in 1900, won by Great Britain, represented by Devon and Somerset Wanderers).
9. Open water swimming
Unlike the sailors, who will have to negotiate what remains of the algae at Qingdao, competitors in the inaugural open water 10km swimming "marathons" will have the luxury of splashing about within the confines of a man-made lake. It was different, too, for the swimming contestants at the first Olympic Games of the modern era, back in 1896. They were pitched into the Bay of Zea near Piraeus, with 12-foot waves and temperatures that dropped to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Two of the three races held, the 100m and the 1,200m, were won by Alfred Hajos, an 18-year-old from Budapest, who had taught himself to swim because his father drowned in the Danube. He was born Arnold Guttman, but after the fashion of east European Jews of the time competed under an assumed name. He later legally changed his name to Hajos.
10. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson
Have we got news for you? Yes, that much-loved sidekick of Mr Merton and Mr Hislop will be making a special guest appearance at the end of the latest edition of the Greatest Show on Earth. In his capacity as the mayor of the city chosen to host the next Olympic Games, it will be Boris Johnson's duty at the closing ceremony in Beijing to take receipt of the Olympic flag from Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee.
The ceremony will mark the beginning of the formal countdown to the London Games of 2012, complete with its interminable flood of scare stories about unfinished stadiums, rising costs, terrorist threats, and underachieving home athletes.
It is to be hoped that Boris can manage to accomplish his Beijing mission without getting his fingers burnt on the Olympic flame, or offending the good people of Liverpool, Portsmouth and Papua New Guinea.