(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - First, the good news. Clean air greeted athletes who arrived in Beijing last weekend, an indication that the budget of $8.6 billion for “environmental protection” was put to proper use.

Now, the bad news. At least two typhoons are expected to strike several Olympic venues during the 17-day event, causing widespread alarm that inclement weather could lead to severe setbacks in schedules.

Despite the huge budget to fight pollution, it appears practical contingency measures like removing over a million cars from the road and halting construction work are the main reasons for the improvement in air quality.

There is talk that about 200,000 more cars will be banned from traversing and over 100 factories will be shut down if smog returns to cloud the atmosphere.

Chinese authorities insist the campaign for blue skies will continue even after the Olympics. “Beijing will remain clean and the city will be clean forever,” said Premier Wen Jiaobao, quoted by Shi Jiangtao in the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.

Storms are forecast in Shanghai where several soccer preliminaries will be held, Qingdao, which is hosting the sailing events and Hong Kong where the equestrian competitions are set.

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Another cause for concern is the forecast of intermittent rainfall as “very likely” during the 3 1/2-hour opening ceremony on Friday. A 50-minute gala show capped by a fireworks display will be washed out if it rains. Cloud seeding will be done to stop the rains – at least for the duration of the inaugural rites.

By the way, Premier Wen visited the Olympic basketball arena recently and shot a few hoops while Houston Rockets star Yao Ming and a horde of reporters watched. Premier Wen threw up five jumpers, including a runner with the left hand.

“I was a basketball fan when I was young,” said Premier Wen. “Basketball is my favorite game to watch.”

Turning to Yao, Premier Wen told the 7-6 center to “be confident, keep a cool head and play a great game.” He added, “Your first match will catch the world’s eyes. What matters most is not winning or losing but the spirit. I have some advice for you. You must win the nation’s honor, dignity, friendship and show the world the Chinese spirit by playing a spectacular game.”

China’s basketball squad makes its Beijing Olympic debut against powerhouse US on Aug. 10. The finals will be played on Aug. 24.

Only 12 teams are vying for honors in men’s and women’s basketball. The men’s teams are split into two brackets – Argentina, Australia, Croatia, Iran, Lithuania and Russia in Group A and Angola, China, Spain, Germany, Greece and US in Group B. Competing as wildcards are Croatia, Greece and Germany who made it via a qualifying tournament in Athens last month.

The women’s teams are also divided into two – Korea, Brazil, Australia, Belarus, Russia and Latvia in Group A and China, New Zealand, Spain, US, Mali and the Czech Republic in Group B.

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In the men’s category, Argentina is the defending Olympic champion. Italy took the silver and the US, the bronze in Athens four years ago. The US has won the last three golds in women’s competition with Australia settling for silvers the past two Olympics.

The use of naturalized players is widespread in basketball. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive decree granting instant citizenship on African-American point guard J. R. Holden to play for the national team in Beijing. It was rumored that Holden was paid $2 million for swearing in.

The Russian women’s team also has a naturalized player Becky Hammon who justified suiting up for her adopted country by saying, “I’m very proud of what America represents but this is a basketball game, not life or death … Olympic sports should be about unity, friendships and bringing the best athletes on the planet together.”

US women’s coach Anne Donovan has come out in public accusing Hammon of virtual treason. “If you play in this country, live in this country and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person,” she said.

Hammon, 31, plays as an import for CSKA Moscow and was never picked to join the US national pool.

Other naturalized cagers playing in Beijing include Germany’s Chris Kaman and Australia’s C. J. Bruton.

The NBA veterans seeing action are Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki and Kaman, Spain’s Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa, Australia’s Chris Antsey and Andrew Bogut, Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto, Carlos Delfino and Andres Nocioni, Lithuania’s Sarunas Jasikevicius, China’s Yao, Wang Zhizhi and Yi Jianlian, Greece’s Vasileios Spanoulis, Russia’s Andrei Kirilenko and 12 US players.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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