Five-ring Circus

Summer Olympics Disaster Guide: Opening Ceremony Edition

The Olympics are all set to kick off. What could possibly go wrong?

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

One month ago, we reported on every possible thing that could go wrong at the Beijing Games: rampant pollution, a television blackout, an uprising by Uighur extremists. Now that the Olympics are set to kick off, we’ve added updates to all of our crisis scenarios and reordered the list with the biggest potential disasters at the top. 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.

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.”
Update, Aug. 7: There have been two major attacks in China in the last month. The Turkistan Islamic Movement took responsibility for bombs on two buses in the southern city of Kunming that killed two people on July 21. Chinese police, however, say the bombings aren’t the work of terrorists. In the province of Xinjiang, homeland of the Uighur separatists, 16 police officers were killed when two grenades were thrown into a police station. China has said that Uighur separatists, possibly linked to al-Qaida, are responsible for the attack.

Scenario: 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 200 meters feel like a 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.
Update, Aug. 7: Millions of Beijing residents have been forced to stop driving on account of a partial government ban on cars. The ban seems to be working: Pollution levels in the city have decreased dramatically. Mother Nature hasn’t been as cooperative, though. Scant rainfall and weak winds have allowed a fog of pollutants to linger over Beijing. The Australian swimming coach has even complained about smog that’s somehow managed to creep inside the Olympic swimming venue.

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: 70 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.
Update, Aug. 7: Nepali police arrested and detained more than 300 anti-China Tibetan protesters this week. China has said three public parks in Beijing may be used for protests as long as the demonstrations don’t harm the country’s “national interests.”

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.
Update, Aug. 7: American speedskater Joey Cheek, a former Winter Olympian, had his visa revoked this week by the Chinese government. Cheek is the head of Team Darfur, a group of athletes trying to raise awareness about China’s role in Sudan. Also, five out of the six mainland cities hosting events for the Olympics have stopped issuing business visas until after the Games conclude.

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 broadcasting equipment reportedly 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: 50 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.
Update, Aug. 7: The Chinese government will allow live broadcasts from the streets of Beijing. Though cameras will be permitted in Tiananmen Square for six hours each day, Chinese officials have banned media organizations from conducting interviews there. In the meantime, Internet censorship has become the latest battleground. The BBC’s Chinese language edition and Amnesty International, among other Web sites that had been censored, were opened to reporters last week.

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. Update, Aug. 7: Amid concerns about the safety of the nation’s food supply, the Chinese government has placed factories and other food facilities under video surveillance during the Olympics. Because high temperatures in Hong Kong could lead to food poisoning, the Olympic Village there will not be serving raw or undercooked foods such as sushi and oysters.


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: 50 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.”
Update, Aug. 7:’s 10-day forecast predicts rain throughout the first week of the Olympics. That’s a bummer for the International Olympic Committee but a blessing for endurance athletes praying for rain to wash away the Beijing haze.


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 parched attendees of this year’s Games.
Chance it could happen: 10 percent
Scary quote: “Sometimes you wonder if they need all the water more than us here,” said Shi Yinzhu, a Chinese sheep herder.
Update, Aug. 7: China says it has all the water it needs for athletes and visitors.

Scenario: The Yellow Sea, the Olympic sailing venue, is full of ships. 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 planned to remove the green stuff by mid-July. Until then, international sailing teams were practicing in what looked like a putting green.
Chance it could happen: 10 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.”
Update, Aug. 7: Most of the gunk is gone, but Xinhua News Agency reports that “sporadic algae” still lingers near the sailing venue. The competition will likely go on though an assistant chairman of the sailing committee has said that a large storm could still force Beijing to suspend the competition.

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 the creatures in their mouths during a competition.
Chance it could happen: 5 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.”
Update, Aug. 7: No word in recent weeks on the locust swarms that had been eating their way south from Mongolia. Perhaps the insects are quietly gathering their strength for the weeks to come.