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Qingdao or bust- Olympics 2008

by Edward Gorman, The Times on 11 Apr 2006
Qingdao is a city defying the odds in order to play a part in the 2008 Olympics

Those in the world of Olympic sailing who still think that there is a chance the Chinese might reconsider their decision to hold the 2008 Olympic regatta in Qingdao need to come to this building site of a city to realise what a forlorn hope that is.

To say that Qingdao, until now best known perhaps as the base of the Tsingtao brewery, has seized the opportunity given it by the Chinese Olympic authorities with both hands and with its bulldozers and concrete mixers would be a huge understatement.

Never mind that there may not be enough wind on Fushan Bay in the month of August to stage a proper regatta, the Chinese have thrown themselves into a massive construction project for the Games and you get the feeling, wind or no wind, that this is it for 2008 and the sailors had better like it.

So far, a shipyard has been uprooted and moved up the coast to make way for the new Qingdao Olympic Sailing Centre, which is being built at an estimated cost of $300 million (about £172 million). The main concrete structure of the marina has been finished this week and work is continuing at a hectic pace on the media centre and an athlete centre, which will be converted into a hotel once the Games are over.

Official computerised images of the finished site show a vast area of beautifully landscaped seafront complete with a small lake and with lots of yachts sailing around on the bay, something the more than seven million citizens of this sprawling urban jungle on the southern tip of the Shandong peninsula have never seen.

The workers are at their task day and night, as they are on construction projects all over Qingdao, and few could doubt that they will get it all finished by the deadline of June 30 this year, ready for the first Olympic 'test event' in late August.

It is not only the scale and ambition of the venue that impress, it is also the state-sponsored enthusiasm of the local authorities for their new sport that strikes home. Qingdao has re-branded itself as China’s 'Sailing City', complete with a logo based on a sailing boat, even though the city has no history of sailing. Banners on which it features are hanging all over the place.

The city is grasping every opportunity to show off its new credentials, welcoming Dame Ellen MacArthur’s visit on her trimaran, B&Q, this week with open arms and putting on a spectacular show for the departure of the amateur Clipper round-the-world race fleet when it set sail for Canada on Saturday. In her speech at the race start ceremony, Zang Aimin, the deputy mayor, made clear the significance for Qingdao of having the Clipper fleet in town and the link with the Olympics. 'By participating and hosting Clipper 05-06 round-the-world yacht race, the world-renowned circumnavigation event, Qingdao has extensively publicised its brand name as Sailing City,' the official translation read.

In equally ambitious terms, she said that the presence of the Clipper fleet had 'played an active role in equipping the citizens with a comprehensive knowledge of sailing and further promoting the popularisation of ocean racing'.

The fact is, of course, that as yet, hardly anyone in China sails and most ordinary Chinese seem unduly wary of the risks it involves. There remain considerable obstacles to anyone going out on the water in a state still anxious about the security of its borders and the green-uniformed frontier police are a heavy-handed presence on the pontoons.

As one British B&Q manager based in China who was visiting the city with MacArthur’s team put it: 'That’s going to be the challenge of the Olympics — they really need to let people loose a bit. One of the problems with sailing is the Chinese are frightened of letting people go out in case they don’t come back.'

So what of the meteorology? The problem is that in August the average wind speed on the waters off the Olympic marina is extremely low, while there are strong currents and fog is common. This makes for an unsatisfactory combination and might make the Olympic regatta more of a lottery than a sporting contest.

When you talk to Chinese officials, they seem open about the figures, with one senior official putting the average wind speed during August at only 3-4 knots, which would make racing a marginal proposition at best. You sense that lack of experience is the problem and the Chinese simply do not yet understand the implications for sailing of wind speeds at such consistently low levels.

The hope has to be that conditions prove better than recent meteorological history suggests and that the Chinese and everyone else will be wandering around a superb facility in August 2008 muttering the well-known sailing phrase: 'It’s not usually like this at this time of year.'

Of one thing we can be sure: everyone in sailing will be watching the wind figures at this summer’s test event with forensic enthusiasm.
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