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Navigating the Olympics, One Character at a Time

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On August 8, the world arrives in China for the 29th Summer Olympic Games. Not all of the world, of course, but an estimated 3.5 million will be on hand somewhere in the Middle Kingdom (in addition to the primary host city of Beijing, official events will also take place in Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Hong Kong, Shenyang, and Qinhuangdao) during the course of the sixteen-day quadrennial sports extravaganza. More significantly, as many as 4 billion people will have access to the games via various broadcast media, including online viewing on the go, and there is reason to believe that as many as one billion people (nearly a third of whom will be Chinese) will be watching the opening ceremonies. The Beijing Olympics will become, therefore, in all likelihood, the most widely-watched event in human history.

And there will be much to watch: all told, some 10,500 athletes representing 208 countries - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe -- will be competing in 28 sanctioned sports -- everything from archery to wrestling. And if all the pre-publicity proves accurate, the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and the Chinese government have done an absolutely amazing job of preparing for the games by constructing some of the most creatively aesthetic, and yet practical, sporting venues in the world. To help ensure that nothing untoward happens, they have scheduled the opening ceremonies for the numerically auspicious 8/8/08.

In addition to the official sponsoring organizations, the enterprising professionals who thrive in China's dynamic environment are also doing their bit. Take for example Praxis Language, the relatively new company that invented www.ChinesePod.com that uses the power and potential of interactive Web 2.0 technology to make learning Chinese easier and more accessible. Users learn on their own terms instead of in the traditional teacher-centric, "one-to-many" format used by other language instruction methodologies, including other podcast-based systems.

Seeing the Olympics as an opportunity for growth and expansion by helping people navigate the confusing streets of Beijing during the Olympic hoopla, Praxis created a downloadable ChinesePod mini-website www.chinesepod.com/olympics geared especially for visitors to -- and spectators of -- the XXIXth Olympiad. Their goal: to help the rest of the world better understand, appreciate, and negotiate the quintessentially "foreign" and confusing (at least to Westerners) Chinese culture and language. And one of the best features of this new system is its mobility. The lessons are all downloadable to an iPod or iPhone to be used at the time and place of need.

The ChinesePod Olympics website includes interactive maps to allow users to search venue and national names in English, Chinese, and pinyin Romanization and match venues with the games scheduled there. Icons identify key terms for each Olympic event. For new learners, there are basic materials on the city and the Games. For intermediate and advanced Chinese learners there are interactive tools with the vocabulary, concepts, and culture tips they need to help them make the most of their Olympics experience: knowing when Chinese crowds are chanting for the Hungarians (Xiongyali!) vs. the Italians (Yidali!), following rapid-fire commentary on an attack move (jiqiu!) in a hot game of volleyball, or just finding the best places to drown an Olympics-sized thirst.

This language learning system will make it easier for hundreds of thousands of visitors to explore the city and culture of China this summer -- and for months and years to come. For many, it will be an important first step toward understanding this rising global power -- not to mention the realization that more Westerners must learn to speak Chinese.

While there are some who may wish the games ill because of their dislike of official Chinese Government policies, e.g., "supporting" the genocide in Sudan, oppressing the people and culture of Tibet, or turning a blind eye to the labor, safety, environmental, and intellectual property right infringements of its booming manufacturing sector, their bad wishes are both too late and misplaced. The time to protest was back in 2001, before Beijing was awarded the games by the International Olympic Committee.

Once they were, however, all such protestations were both beside the point and counterproductive to the success of the games, which -- despite all the corporate sponsorship and shameless self-promotion -- are all about the athletes and the competition. The last thing that anyone should want to see is a repeat of the boycotts in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 when the only losers were the athletes, both those who weren't allowed to compete because of their own government's unilateral compulsion to make a political statement, and those who, as a result, were deprived of the opportunity to face their strongest challengers.

The XXIXth Olympiad is a significant milestone illustrating China's presence on the world stage as an economic global power. We should all be watching and listening with great interest.

Read more HuffPost coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games