BEIJING — With the Olympics just a month away, it's time for China to deliver on promises made seven years ago when the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the Games.
That was the message Tuesday from Hein Verbruggen, the senior IOC official who has guided preparations as China has poured US$40 billion into venues and new infrastructure.
Three major issues loom before the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies: Beijing's choking air pollution, freedom for journalists to report at the Games, and finishing two subway lines and a rail line. Beijing's 31 Olympics venues were completed months ago.
"Preparation time is over," said Verbruggen, speaking at the inauguration of the Main Press Center and International Broadcast Center. Standing nearby was Liu Qi, secretary of Beijing's Communist Party and the president of the local organizing committee.
Both men were shrouded in a grey veil of pollution, which skimmed the ground and limited visibility to a few hundred metres. Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau, which says the city has about 260 "blue-sky days" annually, rated the air quality as "fair."
"Now it is operation time," Verbruggen said. "And that means we will have to deliver to all stakeholders - including the media, obviously - what was pledged."
The Games are supposed to show China's growing economic power and clout. The last six months have had some PR problems outside China, but national pride in the Games remains strong.
Steven Spielberg dropped out in February as an artistic adviser, citing Chinese policies in Darfur. In March, rioting in Tibet was followed by pro-Tibet protests on the torch relay - and pro-China rallies to counter. On May 12 a deadly earthquake in central China killed just under 70,000.
Some of this will be soothed if China tops the medal table - replacing the U.S. - and the impressive venues cloud political concerns. The subways and rail line are slightly behind schedule, but should be ready later this month.
Verbruggen described the venues and organization in Beijing as "a gold standard" but acknowledged "a very small number of open issues remain."
"Here in the Chinese capital you can now really sense the excitement and anticipation," he said. "The city feels ready; it looks ready, with the stunning venues all completed."
Air pollution is supposed to be cleared up by a temporary, but draconian plan beginning July 20 which will remove about two million cars from Beijing's streets. The plan also calls for shuttering dozens of factories and heavy industry in Beijing and a half-dozen surrounding provinces.
But the most difficult promise to keep for the authoritarian government may be upholding a pledge made in 2001 allowing as many as 30,000 reporters to work freely as they have in other Olympics.
The IOC and television rights holders such as America's NBC have been at odds for months with Chinese security officials, fighting to clarify the rights of satellite trucks to move freely around the city of 17 million.
Access to spots like Tiananmen Square - who will be allowed in, when and under what conditions - is also a battleground with Chinese authorities fearing the iconic site could be used as a TV backdrop by pro-Tibet protesters or the spiritual movement Falun Gong.
The issues will come to a head again when broadcasters, the IOC and Games organizers meet Wednesday in Beijing. This is a follow-up to a contentious meeting in May when IOC and broadcast officials criticized Beijing organizers for bureaucratic delays that could compromise TV coverage.
"I think this free reporting will be a problem for everyone," said Johannes Hano, East Asia bureau chief of Germany's ZDF television. Hano had a live interview on the Great Wall stopped last week when police barged into an interview that was being transmitted back to Germany.
"They will stop you even if you have permission. It will be the biggest problem. There is no freedom of press as they promised," he said.
One of two rights-holding broadcasters for the Games in Germany, Hano said ZDF was sending a "sharp protest letter" to IOC president Jacques Rogge, Beijing organizers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the European Broadcasting Union over the incident.
"We are worried this situation will continue and freedom of journalists will not be guaranteed here," Hano said.
Beijing Olympic organizing officials have repeatedly promised that reporters will be free to do their jobs and cover the Olympics as they have at previous Games.
Manolo Romero, the general manager of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, said the issue was on Wednesday's agenda. Known as BOB, the IOC subsidiary co-ordinates and provides technical services for the television networks with rights to broadcast the Olympics, such as NBC.
"This matter is being discussed now with the Beijing organizers," Romero said at the inauguration.
China is on the record promising unrestricted coverage. In a 273-page guide to coverage for the foreign press, the introduction says: "The Chinese government will honour its commitments in the bid process ... to provide quality and convenient services to the media in accordance with international practice and the successful experience from previous Games, so as to satisfy the demands of the media covering the Olympic Games in China."
Rocked by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting in March in Tibet, China stepped up security everywhere and tightened visa rules.
Chinese officials say terrorism is the biggest threat to the Games, although human-rights groups say the threat is being used to dampen internal dissent.
China will deploy about 100,000 anti-terrorism police during the Games, with some of the city's 500,000 Olympic volunteers also serving security roles. Police have already begun bag checks in Beijing's subway stations, leading some to dub these the "Killjoy Games."
A blunt reminder of security is visible about a kilometre from the Bird's Nest National Stadium, where two ground-to-air missiles are pointed skyward.
In Qingdao, the venue for sailing about 560 kilometres from Beijing, thousands are working to clear an algae bloom that covers one-third of the sea area where the competition begins on Aug. 9. The bloom may be caused by pollution, a persistent problem along the highly industrialized east coast of China.
Rogge has said some outdoor endurance events lasting more than an hour will be postponed if the air quality is poor.