BEIJING - Bird's Nest


© AP Photo/Andy Wong/Scanpix

18 April 2008,China

BEIJING (AFP) — Beijing's eye-catching main Olympic stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest, will open for business for the first time on Friday when it hosts a world-class athletics event.

The 3.5-billion-yuan (500-million-dollar) arena will be the centrepiece of the Beijing Games, staging the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the athletic competition.

Though it remains unfinished, the iconic stadium which gained its nickname thanks to its interlocking structure of steel beams, will throw open its doors to an estimated 20,000 paying customers for an IAAF men's race-walking competition.

It is one of 42 test events that Beijing Olympic organisers are staging to fine-tune preparations ahead of the August 8-24 Games.

The nearby National Aquatics Centre, also known as the Water Cube and the second of Beijing's two iconic Olympic venues, was completed in December and staged its first test event in February, the China Open swimming competition.

Work still remains to be done on the Bird's Nest although the overall structure is finished and athletes competing on Friday and those in more races scheduled for Saturday are not expected to be inconvenienced.

Yang Shu'an, executive vice-president of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, said test events would ensure that "everything is in working order as far as the hosting parties are concerned."

All 31 of Beijing's Olympic venues were supposed to be finished by the end of 2007 but officials said the main stadium would be finished later, probably in May, because of the extra work needed to prepare it for the opening and closing ceremonies.

Fixtures and fittings still need to be installed, including some of the 91,000 seats that will be in place for the Games.

While China struggles against a wave of bad publicity over Tibet and human rights issues in the run-up to the Olympics, the "hardware" side to the Games has encountered few major problems.

International Olympic Committee officials have repeatedly praised Beijing's venue construction and President Jacques Rogge, in Beijing last week, once again spoke highly of Games preparations.

Work started on the stadium in December 2003 after a consortium led by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron won an international competition to build it.

Progress was interrupted in August 2004 when the stadium's expensive retractable roof fell victim to cost-cutting measures, as did 9,000 seats.

Work resumed later that year and an army of migrant workers was recruited from the countryside to complete the landmark project.

A British newspaper said last year that at least 10 workers had died in the race to complete the stadium on time.

After repeated denials, the government admitted that two migrants had died on the project, one in 2006 and one in 2007.

On Sunday, the stadium will host the finish to the Beijing marathon, another test event. Its first full dress rehearsal comes when it hosts the China Open athletics competition on May 22-25.

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