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ATHENS - It was to be China's time to shine, a year of celebrations with the Olympic spirit touching the hearts and minds of one-fifth of the world's population as the Games headed to Beijing.

ATHENS - It was to be China's time to shine, a year of celebrations with the Olympic spirit touching the hearts and minds of one-fifth of the world's population as the Games headed to Beijing.

Instead, months before the August 8-24 Games, human rights groups disrupted the globally televised torch-lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia, setting off a chain of worldwide protests.

From Paris and London to San Francisco and Seoul, the Beijing Olympics torch relay became a target for human rights protesters as it meandered across the globe.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) faced mounting criticism and bad press for its decision to award the Games to China, despite the country's human rights record.

"We are not an activist organisation," IOC chief Jacques Rogge, pictured, said adding that the Games would bring change to China.

The word "boycott" crept into discussions months before the Games but in the end none materialised. Even Iraq, temporarily suspended weeks before the Olympics, managed to send athletes to China.

By the time the Olympics started with a record 204 teams parading in the spectacular Bird's Nest stadium, both local organisers and the IOC were under intense media scrutiny.

Internet restrictions for foreign media, pro-Tibet protests and Beijing's air quality grabbed the headlines in the days running up to the Games.

However, the dazzling opening ceremony showcasing the might of modern China, which invested an estimated $40 billion to prepare for the Games, set the stage for memorable performances .

US swimmer Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals in spectacular fashion and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt captured the 100 and 200 metres sprint double as well as a 4x100m relay gold in world record-breaking time.

Defending Olympic 110 metres hurdles champion Liu Xiang, China's biggest hope at the Games, added some drama when he hobbled off the track minutes before his first heat, stunning a capacity Bird's Nest crowd.

Team China, though, were unstoppable, topping the medals table with 51 golds, leaving the United States second with 36.

Russia were third and Britain fourth with their best performance in a century and their eyes set firmly on the London 2012 Olympics.

The IOC saw record television audiences in most major markets and used the YouTube video-sharing website to post Olympic footage online, recording more than 16,5 million hits and unlocking the potential of new media to attract younger viewers.

The opening ceremony alone was seen by 1,2 billion people around the world.

Doping concerns led to extensive pre-Games testing by federations and Olympic teams which rooted out some 50 cheats.

An additional 5000 tests were conducted, nabbing nine athletes. But the Games were spared the embarrassment and unwanted distraction of a major doping scandal.

Many samples are now being retested for a new generation of the banned blood-boosting substance EPO.

The spotlight quickly switched to the 2012 Summer Games after the Beijing closing ceremony, with the British capital already struggling with its biggest project, the £1 billion Olympic village.

The global credit crunch has had an impact on the project but the IOC says none of its future Games, including the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games and the London 2012 Olympics, are in any serious financial danger.

Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Madrid, all candidates for the 2016 Games, also said their bids were financially secure.

The election for the 2016 host will take place in Denmark in October 2009 with Chicago getting a major boost from the success of its famous resident, Barack Obama, in the US presidential election.

The IOC's own finances couldn't be healthier, they are is still on track to top $1,0 billion in sponsorship revenue and about $3,8 billion in broadcasting rights.

"We come out of the enormous success of Beijing, into difficult economic times," Rogge said. - Reuters


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