With the Olympics now less than a year away, Margaret Ward reports from Beijing on how China is aiming to use the event to show it can outdo us all as the world's fastest growing economic powerhouse

At 8.08pm on 8 August 2008 the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games will put the spotlight on China as never before.

The number eight – 'ba' in Chinese sounds very similar to the word 'fa', which means wealth.

The date and time, in the eight month of the year, are no coincidence. This is about China marking its territory as the world's most rapidly developing economy, and a growing power.

In 1964 Tokyo marked Japan's exit from the twilight of World War II with its hosting of the Olympic Games; Korea put itself on the map with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. China's ambitions are even greater.
Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers (right), will direct the opening, and no one doubts it will be spectacular.

Unlike Athens in 2004, it is not expected that anyone will still be painting stadiums when the athletes are already on planes. Construction is ahead of schedule, new metro lines have already been opened, and a major programme to tackle pollution is underway.

This event will be stage-managed to within an inch of its life, though there is still room for some surprises.

For example, will Chinese dissidents (if they are not already in detention) choose to make a dramatic statement, knowing that the risk they run would be rewarded by worldwide coverage?

8-24 August will be a fascinating fortnight, not just for those with an interest in sport, but for anyone who wants to find out how a country the size of China plans to take its place on the world stage.

As a rights holder for the Olympics, RTÉ will be bringing you extensive coverage of the sports events and the progress of the Irish team, but between now and then we will also be bringing you an insight into how the event is planned and managed, how China plans to use this opportunity, and how ordinary Chinese feel about the rapid changes taking place across the country.

The event by numbers

The Olympic Games will take place on 8-24 August 2008. 10,500 athletes are expected to take part in 26 sports. 20,000 accredited media are expected to cover the Games, with 4bn people watching on television. The games are expected to cost $2bn, which is less than the total bill for Athens.

The Olympic flame will leave Athens on 25 March and the torch will pass through all five continents before arriving in China on 4 May. Controversially, the Chinese plan to bring the torch to the summit of Mount Everest, in Tibet, which China invaded in 1951 and claims as part of its territory. Chinese climbers have already rehearsed the climb.

Chinese sporting officials are trying to dampen speculation that China's goal is to overtake the United States in the medal tally, pointing out that China is not as strong as other countries in events like athletics and swimming which provide many of the medals.

- Margaret Ward

RTÉ.ie Sneak Preview

Coming up this week from RTÉ's Beijing bureau:

  • Margaret Ward takes a tour of the Olympic venues
  • Remember smog! How the Beijing organisers are working frantically to improve air quality in one of the world's most polluted cities
  • Wushu – meet the Irish team competing at the 9th World Wushu Championships in Beijing for a chance to take part in this new Olympic Demonstration Sport