Just days before the start of the Beijing Olympics, Czech athletes, journalists and support staff are arriving in the host city. The Czech Republic is sending a 133-member team, and the first hours spent in the city suggest that these Olympic Games will be a challenge in more ways than one.
Hot, humid conditions, smog and extremely tight security - those are the first impressions of Czech athletes who are now settling down in the Olympic village. One of the country’s biggest medal hopefuls canoeist Štepánka Hilgertová, who has been chosen to carry the Czech flag at the opening ceremony, said training was like “rowing in a steam room”. Although the Czech support staff had not thought to bring refrigerated vests, used by the Chinese athletes, they did bring special smog filters that are now being installed in every room of the Czech section of the Olympic Village. The heat and humidity are two factors that could cost the Czech team coveted medals –and which Czech athletes fear more than some rivals. The pollution index for Tuesday was between 90 and 110 and although China regards an index level of less than 100 to be a "blue sky day", the International Olympic Committee says that for athletes of endurance events pollution could pose a major problem and it might reschedule some if the pollution got any worse. However it has not yet said what it regards as an acceptable pollution level.
Outside of the Olympic Village journalists have other problems to contend with. Czech Television’s correspondent Tomáš Etzler says that in the wake of Monday’s terrorist attack in the north-west of the country tension is high and security extremely tight.
“The security measures now in place in Beijing are overwhelming. For instance no Uighurs or Tibetans are allowed into the city unless they have a very good reason for being there. There are 180,000 armed forces patrolling Beijing, including police officers and troops, there are rapid deployment units on stand-by to restore order in the event of a disturbance and anti-aircraft missiles to protect the airspace over the city. The extent of security is truly staggering, because the authorities clearly fear many things – not just possible terrorist attacks but also protest demonstrations.”
The local residents of Beijing are proud to host the Olympics but many of them are said to be unsettled by the upheaval, some fear going out and about and reportedly many of them have taken out new life insurance claims. According to Tomas Etzler a reporter’s work in Beijing is not easy at this time:
“Despite the promises of the Chinese government and the Chinese Olympic Committee some internet sites remain blocked. And there have been several incidents between foreign TV crews and the police. There were incidents with reporters from ZDF, Hong Kong television, a Danish TV station and the BBC and none of them were doing anything illegal. The problem is that the police here are jittery and obsessed with security and they often conclude that reporters are shooting at ‘sensitive locations’. Yesterday they came to the Czech TV newsroom to check our passports, our residence permits and even the lease of the rooms we are using. So tension between the police and foreign journalists is high.”
Police patrols have now been given orders not to interfere in foreign journalists’ news coverage, seize memory cards or take reporters to police stations for questioning in so-called “ordinary cases”. However no one is quite sure what that means and the fact that journalists need to apply 24 hours in advance just to take pictures of Tiananmen Square indicate that the Chinese authorities intent to keep everything but the weather very much under control.