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Beijing's monuments to a lost Olympic era

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David Bond | 15:55 UK time, Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were probably the last of their kind. In a vastly changed global economic landscape, few future hosts will have the money or the will to stage a mega-event on that scale.

Everything about it was supposed to leave you with a sense of awe. From the venues and the ceremonies to the home team's dominance of the medal table, the Games were designed to announce China's arrival as a global superpower.

Returning to Beijing's Olympic Green for my third and final special report on Olympic legacy, it felt as though little had changed over the last four years.

The Bird's Nest and Water Cube are still decked out in 2008 branding and one can't help feeling that the venues are seen more as monuments to China's big moment in the spotlight than functioning sporting venues.

Chinese athletes outside the Beijing Olympic stadium

Beijing's 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium is now only rarely used as a sports arena. Photo: Getty

In fact more Chinese tourists - five million to be precise - were drawn to the Olympic Stadium in 2011 than to the Forbidden City.

That's because, for the vast majority of Chinese people, staging the Olympics was a moment of immense national pride.

That is perhaps why there is little concern about the way the organisers planned for their legacy use once the Olympic flame had been passed to London.

Li Ning, China's most famous Olympian and now a hugely successful businessman, was the man given the honour of lighting the flame on that steamy, extraordinary night back in 2008.
In an exclusive interview he told me that the Olympics opened China to the world and the world to China. That's why it was so special.

But he nevertheless conceded he had some concerns over the way the stadiums were now being used and the lack of funding for grassroots sport and coaching since the Olympic circus rolled on. To hear the six-time Olympic medallist - such a prominent figure in Chinese sport - making any criticism is deeply significant in a communist country where people are still not able to express their opinions freely.

China's markets and economy might have opened up but critics, such as the artist and Bird's Nest designer Ai Weiwei, believe that when it comes to human rights the country is going backwards.

In a BBC interview for the report, carried out before I arrived in Beijing, he added that he felt the Games had done nothing for the people of China.

"Beijing would become the most quickly forgotten Games," he added.

Of course whenever the International Olympic Committee was accused of turning a blind eye to China's human rights record, it would argue that giving the Games to the most populated country on earth would accelerate change.

There is scant evidence of this. Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained by police last year and is under constant surveillance from the authorities. And the recent controversy over dissident Chen Guangcheng has served to heighten concerns.

While in Beijing I also spoke to a leading editor on one of China's biggest websites. He told me it was a fact of life that censors from the government worked among his staff deleting articles and comments on forums which were considered out of line with state policy.

"It's a fact of life and we just have to get on with it," he says.

For what it's worth my personal impression was that the city felt slightly more relaxed four years on - but that was probably more to do with the absence of the unique pressures that come with hosting the Olympics. I was at least able to ask an official, Jiang Xiaoyu, the deputy chairman of the Beijing Olympic City Development Agency (BODA), a question on human rights.

You won't be surprised that he dismissed any concerns but he did acknowledge that progress on human rights was slow.

Over the last few months I have been lucky to visit three of the last five summer Olympic cities - Beijing, Barcelona and Sydney - for a special series for the Six and Ten O'Clock News and the Today programme.

Interestingly a few themes have emerged which serve as vital pointers for London who, from the start of their Olympic journey seven years ago, have placed legacy right at the heart of their vision for the Games.

*In each of the three cities the national pride (often referred to as intangible benefits) can't be easily dismissed. To varying degrees all three cities had their own reasons for wanting to enhance their international reputations. But does London, already a renowned world-class city, need this and if it does what sort of message about modern Britain and its capital city does it really want to send this summer?

A summer of flag waving might make us all feel better but it may come to feel a bit hollow unless we can do what they did in Barcelona and Sydney and use it to help foster a greater sense of national identity and community.

*Olympic stadiums which retain a running track struggle to find a workable, financially viable legacy. In Sydney's case the stadium is only the success it is today because it decided to rip up the track after the Games and concentrate on field sports. Besides exhibition matches, concerts and a winter theme park, the Bird's Nest is barely used for anything other than tourism.

In Barcelona, the main anchor tenant, football club Espanyol, moved out, leaving the local council with a costly, if beautifully built, stadium which has no long-term future.

London is hoping West Ham will finally do a deal to move in and rent the venue - running track included - but the process has been delayed again and is still not certain. Although it has given them welcome breathing space now, organisers and the government are sure to regret rushing the original designs which ruled out converting the stadium to a proper multi-use venue which catered for Premier League football first with an option to modify the layout for track and field in the summer.

*The IOC makes demands which no city can reasonably be expected to cope with. Only Sydney, after a decade of late legacy planning, has managed to now find proper sustainable uses for the majority of its venues. Beijing and Barcelona have fared less well. London is hoping its use of temporary venues and advanced planning will buck the trend on legacy but the IOC must know that asking cities to build facilities for 26 simultaneous world championships in one place every four years is unsustainable at a time of such difficult economic circumstances.

Rome's withdrawal and the absence of an American contender in the race for the 2020 Olympics is a clear sign that the days of world-class cities bidding for the Games may be coming to an end.

*In each of the cities I went to, it was extremely difficult to find any hard evidence that staging the Games led to a significant boost to sports participation. In fact most people I asked told me exactly the opposite. This was most surprising in Australia where they have an even greater obesity crisis than in the UK. This was the biggest problem for the Government last year, who relaunched the participation strategy having abandoned the Labour administration's promise to get an extra one million people active through sport by 2012.

Despite hopes that lottery money will shore up public funding for elite and grassroots sport after the Games, the UK economy is showing such sluggish growth and there are no guarantees. Future ministers may find they are having to deliver decade old promises on legacy against a backdrop of further cuts - a position which may become difficult to justify.

*Finally, to finish on a more positive note, there is no doubt the Games can provide a huge boost to a city's infrastructure. Beijing and Barcelona benefited from extra investment in roads, airports and in the Catalan capital's case - a new beach and port development which changed the city's image completely. Already the benefits are being felt in Stratford with the new Olympic park, housing, Westfield and improved train and tube stations.

But has London been ambitious enough? One of the architects involved in the Barcelona project told me the Olympic Park should have been enlarged and designed to stretch further southwards to meet the River Thames, thus creating a far bigger park and more homes. He argued that would have had a far more transformative effect on the capital's deprived East End. And besides the javelin train from St Pancras International to Stratford, there are barely any major transport changes you can link directly to the Games. Non-Olympic related projects such as Heathrow's Terminal 5 have made a difference and Crossrail will obviously have a major impact when it is finished.

But London's creaking transport infrastructure remains largely the same and, besides the East End, the rest of the city has been untouched.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think cities bidding for 2020 were more influenced by the current economic climate. Further it is highly unlikely an American city would succeed in 2020 so soon after thegames were held in South America. Cities are normally awarded re geographical area. Hence it never goes to a european city, immediately after another European city has held it. I realise Brazil is in South America, but North America, at l,east in a sporting context is normally batched in the same pool.

    Barcelona greatly benefitted through a rejuvenation of the city as a whole. I first visited Barcelona in 1989 and have been 16 times since, including the summer of 1992. The City, other than it's main tourist attractions has chaged immensely. The raval area and barcelonetabeing two prime expamples.

  • Comment number 2.

    The fact is no-one cares about athletics, and a small percentage of the population only gives a jot once every four years. At the end of the day, athletics is dull and all athletes operate under suspicion after years of well publicised drug scandals. As a non londoner I did not want this expensive bore fest and will let it pass me by without a seconds thought.

  • Comment number 3.

    It's a good job LOCOG have got the tickets sorted - the legacy will follow sooner than you realise...

  • Comment number 4.

    The Beijing Olympic Games were about Beijing, and about China - much as the Moscow Games were about the Soviet Union, The LA Games about the United States, the Soeul Games about South Korea, and Asia.

    All Games that were, first and foremost, a showcase for the host of the hosts values and importance.

    The London Games, if we are lucky, will be less about London, and more about the Olympics - i.e. the sport. Certainly the Coe vision gives us hope for that. That's where the success of Barcelona and Sydney lay - yes, they were an ad for Catelonia and Sydney, but more so, they were an embrace of sport for sports sake, and the ability of sport to lift a neighbourhood, and a country - and wonderful for it

    So I for one will not mourn the disappearance of the Games as a National Statement of importance - but welcome back the idea of a festival of colour and youth, which itself brightens the host, who in turn let that brightness out.

    As to the 'architectureal vision' - leaving aside my deep distrust of architects generally - you're a paid employee, do what you're asked, not some mad vision of your own - One has to realise the sheer size of London is such that it cannot rejig the whole city - London dwarfs barcelona, sydney or athens.

  • Comment number 5.

    I can't help but wonder that one of the reasons why Greece is in so much financial ruin is bacause the IOC held the country hostage to upgrade their entire infrastructure through public financing.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's just another opportunity for the seemingly patriotic ego to carve out space and express its 'greatness'. It will be all over in a few weeks. The banners, advertisements and logos that are shoved down our throats will be taken out and replaced with shampoo adverts and free international calls to Poland.

  • Comment number 7.

    Although I appreciate the long term future of the main stadium is still up for grabs, I do think London's blueprint of using a number of temporary venues e.g. Basketball arena, Water Polo Arena should be praised & must be the way forward for future games.

  • Comment number 8.

    Fascinating article, particularly - speaking as a PE teacher - the point that participation decreases.

    I believe that elite sport is so unattainable for the majority that it deters rather than motivates those who watch (much as they may enjoy watching).

    I once ran a rowing machine challenge to 'Beat Redgrave's score' at the London Boat Show. The idea was to encourage people to try rowing, instead one after another who had a go turned away saying " well I'm so much slower than him, I'm obviously rubbish at rowing".

  • Comment number 9.

    2. At 17:41 15th May 2012, thecatalyst wrote:

    The fact is no-one cares about athletics, and a small percentage of the population only gives a jot once every four years. At the end of the day, athletics is dull and all athletes operate under suspicion after years of well publicised drug scandals. As a non londoner I did not want this expensive bore fest and will let it pass me by without a seconds thought.


    A bit of an exaggeration. If no one cared or found athletics dull then everyone who wanted tickets would have had no problems getting them and the British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace would be held in front of an empty stadium every year.

    Raises another question as to why the license fee is being spent on articles and forums that incite, and pander to, the small minority of the population who feel the need to vent their frustrations in public by posting wild and extreme comments not related to the subject in hand (i.e. Olympic Legacy). Free speech is one thing, however on the last forum on ticketing I counted 243 comments only 36 of which actually related to the matter in hand and significantly reduced the interest in, and worth of, the forum.

  • Comment number 10.

    London 2012 can learn very little from Beijing 2008 because you can't compare two totally different cultures and outlooks.

  • Comment number 11.

    While in Beijing I also spoke to a leading editor on one of China's biggest websites. He told me it was a fact of life that censors from the government worked among his staff deleting articles and comments on forums which were considered out of line with state policy

    I wondered where the beeb got it's moderators from.....

  • Comment number 12.

    I found it interesting, if not surprising, that an article questioning the legacy of the Olympic Games to preivous hosts and how London can avoid mistakes has led to half the article - including the interviewer - asking about human rights. It's almost as if western journalists have some sort of inherent agenda re: anything China - gotta ask about those rights!!!

    Talking about flowers? What about human rights!


  • Comment number 13.

    It's entirely relevant to mention Human Rights with regard to China.

    Because the IOC itself claimed that a legacy of the Beijing Games would be improved Human Rights in China and in fact, this was cited as a reason for awarding them the Games in the first place.

    And the Chinese government made pledges to improve human rights as part of their case to be awarded the Games, including an explicit commitment to uphold press freedom.

  • Comment number 14.

    I think people need to think a bit more deeply about motivation if they want to have a mass participation legacy after the games.

    The people who are in the main motivated by Olympic gold are people who already have a positive view of sport, enjoy some sport or other and are therefore motivated to try something new.

    For those with a negative view of it, maybe being a bit overweight, having had bad experiences at school etc etc, it's unlikely to work. They are going to need positive feelings to want to participate and that won't come from people they have never met and probably never will meet. It will either come from inside themselves or from people they know locally.

    If those people spent 1 year simply cycling 1 mile four times a week, that might be the starting point to more regular exercise, be that walking, dancing, swimming, cycling or more formal sport.

    You solve obesity through gradations of EXERCISE, not through aiming to become Olympic champion. There may be a small number who break the mould, but the majority won't. They KNOW they aren't gifted sporting wise, for them the selling points have to be well-being, feeling good (the endorphin high), meeting people through gentle exercise and the health benefits that will bring. Those are attainable and therefore motivation is possible.

    Once you get to that platform, maybe some will go further. Hopefully plenty will. But you don't want overweight people ruining their joints taking up running too early. Get them thinner on a bike, in a pool, where their joints are protected. Get them to walk up hills to strengthen muscles and joints. Then you can introduce jogging if you want to.

    If you want a sustainable national pride, you have to embrace the entire population, not glorify a tiny minority.

    May not be what the Lords of the land want to hear, but it's the truth you'll find on the ground........

  • Comment number 15.

    What annoys me more than anything is everyone keeps calling it the "London" Olympics. It should be called the East London Olympics, they get any infrastructure benefits all the rest of London's population get is the bill. If the rest of the Olympic construction has been as badly thought through as the Athletics Stadium there won't actually be much in the way of benefits, just ongoing costs. I would be a lot more enthusiastic if Paris had won the bid.

  • Comment number 16.

    I agree that sport participation legacy is going to be a challenge.
    However, for anyone doubting a legacy left by the venues etc, I think winning the Olympics and the building work over the past 5 years has done wonders for the East End, and LOCOG should be praised for their efforts to ensure continuity after the Games are finished. No white elephants here! I have lived in Stratford for the past 5 years and have seen the entire area change beyond all recognition - infrastructure, landscaping, cleaning, residential & commercial property, entertainment etc.
    I also went to the test event at the Stadium recently, and while some venues & seating arrangements may be scaled back e.g the pool, or removed completely (e.g. the basketball arena), the remaining fixed venues are of top quality and will be used. How they will be used and by whom is still up for debate, but there is no question that I am really happy with what I have seen, and some of the designs are fantastic.
    Having said that, I do wish they had taken the opportunity 5 years ago to tear out the Tube and start again, but you can't have everything!

  • Comment number 17.

    Time and time again there is one legacy project that has been a roaring success, yet fails to get any coverage by the BBC. Gold Challenge announced today that over 90,000 people have registered to its program, committing to take on Olympic and Paralympic sporting activity whilst fundraising for charity: As part of the People, Places, Play Legacy for the London 2012 Olympics it's been a major success, yet I never get to read anything about it.
    And I think it taps into exactly what rjaggar was saying (so eloquently) - so why is it not being championed by such organisations like the BBC?


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