BEIJING — The Chinese capital likes to dazzle visitors with the biggest and best projects in the world. Consider, for example, the Olympic Park built for the 2008 games. It is spread over nearly 12 square kilometers, intersected by a canal that, seen from above, resembles a dragon.
The park is an exhibition of the country’s Olympic accomplishments. There is the now-famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium and the “Water Cube” aquatic center that looks like a crystal chain from the outside. It uses solar energy to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The Beijing Olympics were, in fact, the most expensive in history for which China spent some $43 billion. Five years later, has it paid for itself? The other related question, of course, is what can Russia learn from China’s experience with the Olympics as it prepares to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Breaking the “Olympic curse”
As the selected host for next year's games was approaching this fall, CNN posted a list of the most-indebted games. Athens 2004 was No. 1. Saddest postscript about the massive Greek overspending are the now-empty stadiums and the Olympic village that was transformed into public housing. But Athens was not alone on this list of Olympic shames. Montreal, which took 30 years to pay off debt from the 1976 games, was also included, as was Lake Placid, Albertville and Nagano. China seemed to risk more than anyone else, but it looks like the Olympic curse passed over the Middle Kingdom.
The miracle buildings constructed in preparation for the 2008 games have not been abandoned. That is abundantly clear from visiting on any given day. There’s hardly room to move in the Water Cube, which is used now both as an aquapark and a tourist attraction.
And it’s not just foreign tourists flocking to the Olympic Park. Busloads of Chinese visitors from elsewhere in the country pose for photos in front of the signature Bird’s Nest, which also is kept quite busy, having hosted 81 different events that have drawn some 120 million spectators since 2008.
Of course, just because the complexes aren’t empty doesn’t mean that the cost of their construction has been paid off. The question of whether an Olympics covers its cost is often a misleading one: indeed, organizing committees often don’t include infrastructure costs in their budgets. And how do you quantify the increase in tourism and an improved investment climate for the city and the country?
As a result, every host city has its own way of bankrolling the Olympics. Some rent out the sports infrastructure, while others demolish them. The Chinese had a very simple approach about what to do with their Olympic structures, which they considered long before the actual games.
“We planned how we were going to use these building ahead of time,” says Liu Jingmin, vice chairman of the Beijing Association for City Development and the Olympics. They discussed what cultural events and exhibitions could be held in the new buildings.
Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace — Photo: Sochi 2014 Winter
In their report on the expenses and advantages of Olympic Games, economics researchers Rustem Nureev and Evgenii Markin cited an example from Beijing as a nearly ideal use of Olympic infrastructure and planning. The complex constructed to host the table tennis competition was built not in the Olympic area, but on the Beijing University campus, so that as soon as the Olympics ended the building could be used by students.
Today the complex hosts a modern fitness center for students that is also available to the public for a fee. The table tennis room, which is still decorated with the Olympic symbol, has been redone to host regular tennis matches. It is also used for singing competitions. Table tennis moved to an adjacent room, but it’s not forgotten, either. The walls are decorated with photographs of professional athletes, as well as local and student stars. The Chinese value their talent.
Liu Bei, who oversees the complex, says that it turns a profit and requires no state subsidies. It sounds pragmatic, almost Western. But when asked about the most exciting moments at the Olympics, where he volunteered, he sounds very Chinese: The moment when then-President Hu Jintao came by. And in sports? Of course, the table tennis final.
Metro and sun
One university student who only saw the Olympics on television remembers very well rushing to see the torch relay with her whole school because their physical education teacher was carrying the torch.
It seems like everyone in China has a similar memory about the Beijing Olympics, and maybe that’s part of the formula for success. The games became a national project for the Chinese, and ticket sales — 95.6% of them sold — reflected the nationwide excitement. Until 2008, the Sydney Olympics had led in attendance, having sold 88% of tickets.
It’s also incredible how the Olympics changed the Chinese capital. The number of Metro lines increased from four to eight. In 2001, the city’s Metro was 42 kilometers long. By 2008, it was 200 kilometers, and by 2010 it was 336 kilometers. It is planned to be 600 kilometers by 2018.
The Olympics also inspired the Chinese to address their smog problem, although the steps they took were not enough to completely solve Beijing’s pollution.
The most important lesson from China is that pulling off a profitable Olympics means planning for the long-term and creating an Olympic infrastructure that the city can use long after the world's athletes are gone.