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In 2001, Beijing beat Toronto, Paris and Istanbul in the contest to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The Chinese city met the news with delirious happiness. People celebrated in the streets, and a crowd of 200,000 converged in Tiananmen Square [source: CNN]. China saw the win as an official international welcome into the developed nations' club. Winning the bid, however, took dedication comparable to that of an Olympic athlete in training. China, already faced with condemnation over human rights issues, had to convince the International Olympic Committee that the nation's booming capital could reduce pollution, improve its infrastructure and play host to scores of guests. With the Olympics less than a year away, is Beijing ready to take the field?
Beijing is an old city, but you wouldn't necessarily know it. Everything seems to be new, under construction and expanding. Returning visitors often have trouble recognizing the places they knew well just five or 10 years ago. More than 15 million people pack themselves into Beijing and its ever-expanding suburbs -- and more arrive every day [source: Beijing 2008]. The city has always been bursting out of its Inner Walls and outer gates, although not quite at today's breakneck speed. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, seized Beijing and made it his Mongol capital. About 200 years later, the Ming Emperor Yongle named the city Beijing, or "Northern Capital," and continued to grow his empire. The pace of change quickened in 1949 with Mao Zedong's drive to raze monuments, city walls and other signs of old Chinese feudalism.
Today, Beijing is not only China's capital but its cultural center. The city overflows with universities, galleries and museums. Its rapid development spurs on a booming economy. In the next section, we'll learn about Beijing's diligent Olympic preparations.