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SARS Disrupts China’s Work on Olympics

May 4, 2003 GMT

BEIJING (AP) _ China was counting on a series of major sporting events to prove to the world it’s ready to stage the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The SARS outbreak changed those plans.

The mysterious virus has killed nearly 200 people in China and infected thousands of others. And one by one, it has taken a toll on the long list of tournaments China was hoping to use as practice runs for the Olympics.

The latest blow came Saturday when FIFA, soccer’s governing body, announced that the Women’s World Cup would be moved from China because of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The United States, Australia, Brazil and Sweden have expressed interest in hosting the tournament.

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Also over the weekend, Liverpool’s soccer team said it probably would cancel its postseason tour of Hong Kong and China, and an international fencing competition in Japan was canceled.

On Friday, the International Cycling Union announced plans to move the world track cycling championship to Europe from Shenzhen in the Guangdong province, where the SARS outbreak is believed to have started.

Another sports casualty was the women’s ice hockey world championships, which was canceled four days before its scheduled April 3 opener in Beijing.

A spokesman for the All China Sports Federation told The Associated Press that the Beijing Games would not be affected. But Xu Shaolian, a reporter for the Nanfang Sports newspaper in Guangdong, acknowledged that the cancellations will be a setback.

``Holding these events would be a big help to our Olympic plans, because holding them is a good way to prepare,″ he said. ``But the Olympics is still five years away, so I don’t think there will be too much damage.″

Although Chinese officials have been relatively quiet about losing the events, scrapping them must deeply wound the nation’s pride. In recent years, as communist ideology lost some appeal among the masses, the government has tried to fill the void with patriotism. Success in sports has been one of the government’s best ways to pump up the nationalistic fervor.

Missing the opportunity to put on the events could also hurt China’s Olympic efforts, because international competitions are giant projects. Pulling them off requires a lot of practice, and China is a relative newcomer in the club of global sports hosts.

China has a lot to do and learn in the next five years, but there will be opportunities: FIFA awarded the 2007 Women’s World Cup to China on Saturday, even as it was announcing that this year’s tournament would be relocated.