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Beijing Games win sympathy, support

Just weeks after the Olympics' many troubles, leaders' handling of the quake has won favor.

BEIJING - China's deadly earthquake may have saved the Beijing Olympics' image.

Just a few weeks ago, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge described the Games as "in crisis." They were being battered by pro-Tibet demonstrations, health concerns about Beijing's noxious pollution, and calls for boycotts tied to China's support for Sudan.

The May 12 earthquake has changed a whole lot.

"I'm sorry to say it, but this has turned things around," said Gerhard Heiberg, a member of the IOC's executive board and its marketing director.

After the tragedy in Sichuan province, the Games are riding a wave of goodwill - a feeling that the government's propaganda machine failed for months to generate.

Of course, 11 weeks remain before the Olympics begin Aug. 8, and another unexpected event could change everything. Politics still loom, and some athletes are still expected to use the Games to speak out on political issues.

"What the earthquake has done . . . it has essentially pushed the coverage of the preparations for the Olympics to the margins, temporarily," said Phelim Kine, Hong Kong-based Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But," he warned, "that coverage and focus will quickly return in the days and weeks ahead."

Analysts acknowledge that China's state-controlled media - by allowing uncharacteristic openness in 24-hour earthquake coverage - have shaped the news agenda and gained sympathy for a catastrophe that has killed more than 55,000 people.

Instead of criticism, China is receiving praise for its quick earthquake response.

Known for its secrecy, the government has let earthquake coverage flow more freely, with less censorship in an era of quick-moving text messages and the Internet.

"Maybe the Chinese government hasn't had time to think about it, but later it may come to realize that, compared with the state-controlled media, the words from the ordinary people at the grass roots are more convincing and influential," said Luo Qing, who teaches at Beijing's Communication University of China.

Hoping to carry the momentum into August, the government has sent Olympic gold medalists Gao Ming (diving), Yang Yang (speedskating) and Deng Yaping (table tennis) into Sichuan to boost the morale of thousands of young orphans surviving in tents.

IOC officials met this week in Beijing and listened to ideas on some kind of earthquake commemoration during the opening ceremony. Athletes and citizens seem to favor it. Such a commemoration took place at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics when the flag from the World Trade Center was displayed.

Organizers also announced a rerouted Olympic torch relay. Instead of in mid-June, the torch will pass through Sichuan province Aug. 3-5 - just before the Games open.