Five-ring Circus

Summer Olympics Disaster Guide

What could go wrong in Beijing? Everything.

Toxic air, algae blooms, Tibetan uprisings—welcome to the 2008 Summer Olympics! As the Aug. 8 opening ceremony inches closer, the list of potential disasters gets longer every day. Below, we’ve collected all of the crises and glitches that might spoil the Beijing games. On our ranking scale, one torch is no big deal; 10 torches is a potential catastrophe. Print out this handy guide, and be prepared for the worst.

The world’s top marathon runner won’t compete in the Olympic marathon because of concerns about Beijing’s toxic air. Pollution worries have also led more than 20 countries to move their pre-Olympic training to Japan. But nobody knows quite what to expect in August. At worst, droves of athletes could make an eleventh-hour exodus on account of not being able to breathe. At the very least, the thick air could make the 200 meters feel like the steeplechase. So far, though, reports out of China point to vastly improving air quality. Beijing’s radical anti-pollution measures —shutting down all chemical plants, freezing construction projects, ordering half of the cars off the road—point out what’s possible when you have tight state control. Chance it could happen: 90 percent Scary quote: “The magnitude of the pollution in Beijing is not something we know how to deal with. It’s a foreign environment. It’s like feeding an athlete poison,” said a respiratory expert assisting American marathoners.

Scenario: The Yellow Sea, the Olympic sailing venue, is full of ships this week. Unfortunately, they’re not racing vessels; they’re gunk removers, dispatched to clean up an enormous algae outbreak that’s choking 5,000 square miles of open water. The Chinese government hopes to remove the green stuff by mid-July. But for now, international sailing teams are practicing in what looks like a putting green. Chance it could happen: 50 percent Scary quote: “There’s no way you can sail through it,”said British windsurfer Bryony Shaw. “If it’s still here in August, it could be a real problem.”

Scenario: International concern for Chinese repression in Tibet has already sparked protests in San Francisco, London, and Paris, where the Olympic torch was briefly extinguished. The Chinese government has cracked down violently on demonstrations in recent months, and numerous world leaders have responded by boycotting the opening ceremony. The worst-case scenario, as seen earlier this year: The Chinese government goes overboard trying to squelch demonstrations and kills more than 100 pro-Tibetan activists. Chance it could happen: 60 percent Scary quote: “There are people all over the world who are Tibet supporters and this is just the first of a cascading waterfall of actions,”said American Shannon Service, who was expelled from China after staging an anti-Olympic protest on Mount Everest.

Scenario: The chance of precipitation in Beijing in early August is 50 percent, but China isn’t leaving anything to chance. The government plans to stop the rain by firing silver iodide rockets into the sky in the hope of wringing water from the clouds before they soak the opening ceremony. With so much invested—financially and publicity-wise—in weather-controlling technology, a wet opening ceremony would be a major embarrassment, not to mention a major bummer for the fans. Chance it could happen: 30 percent Scary quote: “I don’t think their chances of preventing rain are very high at all,”said Roelof Bruintjes of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. “We can’t chase away a cloud, and nobody can make a cloud, either.”

Scenario:  What if everything goes off without a hitch in Beijing but no one is watching? Television rights-holders have complained that the Chinese bureaucracy is making it impossible to plan their coverage, with reports of broadcasting equipment being tied up for security reasons. Even if the cameras do arrive, it’s highly unlikely that China will allow live coverage from Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City. Then again, NBC paid $1.5 billion for broadcast rights to the 2006 and 2008 Olympics—that’s a big incentive to make sure that millions don’t tune in to see nothing but static. Chance it could happen:  1 percent Scary quote: “We are two weeks away from putting equipment on a shipment and we have no clearance to operate, or to enter the country or a frequency allocation,”said Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News.

Scenario: More stringent visa policies put in place in the last few months have already hurt tourism in Beijing. The new rules require certain travelers to show invitation letters, airline tickets, and proof of hotel arrangements before applying for entrance into China. A foreign ministry spokesman has stated that these policies reflect China’s concern for security during the Olympics. If high-profile visitors, journalists, or athletes can’t get into the country, though, the bad PR might drown out any potential security gains. Chance it could happen: 90 percent Scary quote: “Business is so bleak. … Since May, very few foreigners have checked in. Our occupancy rate has dropped by 40 percent,” one hotel operator told the New York Times.

Scenario: The U.S. Olympic team, among other delegations, has raised concerns about the safety of the food in the Olympic Village. In response to a New York Times report that the U.S. team was bringing its own beef, chicken, and pork to Beijing, a Chinese official said that outside food would not be allowed in athletes’ lodgings. China might come to regret that decision if a sprinter is seen heaving on the starting line. Chance it could happen: 50 percent Scary quote: “We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive,”said an American caterer, explaining the potential problem with serving the U.S. team Chinese chicken breasts.

Scenario: Getting water to Beijing, a landlocked city, is a major undertaking. The Chinese government has begun diverting more than 39.6 billion gallons to a dried-up lake near the capital city—a public-works project that has displaced an estimated 300,000 citizens. Northern China has been fighting drought for years, so Beijing’s added demands have many Chinese fearing that there won’t be enough water to go around. There’s also the (slim) possibility of protests by the parched at this year’s Games. Chance it could happen: 30 percent Scary quote: “Sometimes you wonder if they need all the water more than us here,”said Shi Yinzhu, a Chinese sheep herder.

Scenario: If you thought locusts were a problem only in Old Testament times, think again. In 2002, the pests devoured 3.7 million acres of farmland in northern and central China. The insects are now eating their way through Inner Mongolia just in time for the start of the games. The last time locusts reached the capital, locals snagged the protein-filled insects for midsummer snacks. International athletes unaccustomed to the Chinese diet might not be so pleased to find one in their mouth during competition. Chance it could happen: 50 percent Scary quote:“The first generation locusts this year in the areas have already hatched,” said Gao Wenyuan, a Chinese official. “The harm they do is obvious.”

Scenario: The official Web site of the Beijing Olympics says, “Terrorism, in particular, poses the biggest threat” to this year’s games. More than 500 detailed security plans have supposedly been mapped out, and one Communist Party official announced that Chinese authorities have already raided a “terrorist gang” with plans for an Olympics takedown. While al-Qaida is a natural suspect for sabotage, keep an eye on Uighur extremists, Muslims in Western China who have become increasingly active in recent months. Chance it could happen: 10 percent Scary quote: The U.S. State Department has warned Americans that there is a “heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within China in the near future.”