BEIJING – The Athletes' Village for the Beijing Olympics held its opening ceremony Sunday, an all-Chinese curtain raiser with basketball stars Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhizhi heading a 265-member delegation of athletes and officials.
A few foreign delegations were in town Sunday -- just 12 days before the opening ceremony of the games -- but none appeared officially at the inauguration, which was showered in confetti and had dozens of Chinese children handing out Olympic mascots to some of the country's most powerful politicians.
"We now welcome athletes from around the world to come to the games," said Chen Zhili, speaking from a stage draped in red. Chen is the so-called mayor of the village, and a vice president of the organizing committee.
"We will try to satisfy the needs of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds," said Chen, who received a symbolic gold key to the village from organizing committee president Liu Qi. Liu is also the head of Beijing's Communist Party.
The opening came on a hot, muggy morning made more uncomfortable by the thick haze of pollution hanging over the village, which is to house about 16,000 athletes and officials.
Despite drastic pollution-control measures that have been in effect for a week, Beijing's air quality appears unchanged. The Athletes' Village was cloaked in smog, making it invisible from the main Olympic Green area just a half-mile (kilometer) away.
Beijing officials have pulled about half of the city's 3.3 million vehicles off the roads, closed factories in the capital and in a half-dozen surrounding provinces, and halted most construction in the city.
Yao declined to speak entering the amphitheater in the village area, but his teammates were a bit more talkative. Yao and other athletes were dressed in red blazers, yellow shirts and white trousers or skirts.
"I'm looking forward to the games, and I'm very excited about it," said Yi, who was traded a few weeks ago from Milwaukee Bucks to the New Jersey Nets. "I'm in good shape now and ready."
Wang, who was China's first player to crack the NBA, seemed most excited about Germany's qualification for the Olympic basketball tournament. That means a meeting with his friend and former Dallas Mavericks teammate Dirk Nowitzki.
"I'll be happy to meet him in Beijing," Wang said. "We played basketball together and are good friends. I'll try to find a chance to show him around the city and bring him to a roast duck restaurant."
On Friday, China unveiled its team of 639 athletes. It's likely to be the largest of the games, slightly bigger than the 600-member U.S. team.
The 66-hectare (163-acre) village is a complex of high-rise apartments that contains a restaurant that can feed up to 6,000, a library, a clinic, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, jogging tracks, shopping areas and coffee shops. The village will also have its own fire station.
The apartments themselves are modestly decorated in marble and wood with balconies overlooking walkway and courtyards.
After the Olympics and Paralympics, the apartments will be refitted for sale. It's been widely reported the units have already sold out at prices quoted between 20,000-30,000 yuan (US$2,800-4,220) per square meter (10.8 sq. feet). In round numbers, that means apartments will cost in the area of US$500,000-US$1 million -- considered high even in Beijing's soaring property market.
The converted buildings are supposed to be ready late in 2009.