For seven years the Olympic Games have formed the stage on which Beijing has been recast both architecturally and temperamentally. Since having won the bid to host the 2008 games, virtually every narrative strand intertwined with the capital city has been dominated by the Olympics.
Be it stock-market analysts, anti-tobacco lobbyists, intellectual property rights lawyers, tourist officials or university students, all seemed to have hitched their wagon to the Olympics carriage. In the run up to the games, animal-rights activists talked of how the games would transform Chinese attitudes to dogs away from viewing them as food and towards coddling them as man’s best friend. Stock-market analysts pointed to the economic buoyancy generated by the Olympics as the basis for bullish predictions, while taxi drivers grappled with English textbooks, determined to master their ABC’s in time to welcome “foreign friends” in August 2008.
It is small surprise then that the city is currently suffering from somewhat of a post-Olympics aporia. Sunday’s closing ceremony has opened up a void. The gigantic clocks on most major street intersections that used to count down the days and hours to the games are still on display, but only flash out a series of empty zeros.
Analysts are now busy predicting whether or not an economic slump is inevitable for a city whose growth in the lead up to the games was often linked to Olympics-related investments.
However, it’s not only the possibility of an economic crash that needs to be examined but also the psychological low that many Beijingers are already feeling in the Olympics-aftermath. After weeks of yelling “Zhongguo Jia You,” or Come on! China, as Chinese athletes won medal upon medal, there’s a desire to continue cheering, but no victories left to cheer for.
The close of the games has particularly strong ramifications for the generation of youngsters aged 10-29 that the local media in China have begun to call the Bird’s Nest Generation — an allusion to the nickname of the landmark National Stadium.
This is a generation whose formative years have in differing degrees been influenced by China’s successful bid for the Olympics and all that followed in preparation thereof. Accounting for around a third of the country’s 1.3 billion people, this generation is best characterised as self confident and nationalistic while at the same time more open to the outside world than any other previous generation of Chinese.
They have been born at a time when following decades of famine, war, foreign occupation and revolutionary excess, the Olympic Games presented an opportunity for their country to finally be able to hold its head up high to receive gold medal after medal.
As was demonstrated by the tens of thousands of volunteers on duty through the games’ period, the majority of whom were college students, this generation is also much more likely than others to speak English and to even have travelled abroad.
For the Bird’s Nest generation, post-Olympics depression is particularly acute. “The Olympics have been something to look forward to for so many years and then finally they were here and it was just great,” says Wang Na, a 20-year-old student from Beijing Foreign Language’s University. “But now it’s over and it feels empty and strange.”
* * * Was it worth it?
Aside from the anticlimactic feeling that the end of any big party inevitably engenders, the close of the games raises one crucial question: was it worth it? The issue that is now in the spotlight is the long-term legacy that the Olympics will leave Beijing with. These were the most expensive games in history, sporting a price tag of $44 billion, nearly three times the cost of the 2004 games in Athens. In the final analysis will the Olympics have any substantial and enduring benefits for the host city?
Some of the more cosmetic changes that Beijing displayed for the period of the games are unlikely to last long. For example, the clean, blue skies enjoyed by athletes for the last few weeks will almost certainly turn back to grey once the restrictions on coal plants and other industrial activity are lifted and the million-plus cars taken off the roads, allowed back on.
However, the games also provided the impetus for large-scale infrastructural improvements that will well serve the needs of Beijingers for years to come and enable the city to refashion itself as a world-class business and tourist destination. Several new subway lines and hundreds of kilometres of expressways, a ravishing new airport terminal and a substantial increase in the city’s green spaces are some of the longer-term benefits that have accrued to the capital from its Olympic host-city status.
Thought has also gone into avoiding the post-Olympics scenario suffered by many other host cities like Sydney and Athens which were left littered with hugely expensive-to-maintain, debt-ridden sporting stadiums.
All together Beijing built twelve permanent and eight temporary new Olympics venues, while refurbishing eleven others. In order to ensure sustainable and continued use post-games, many of the sporting arenas were strategically integrated with universities. The wrestling stadium for example, will now become a 6,000-seat gymnasium for the China Agricultural University, while the Beijing University of Technology will benefit from the 6,900-seat venue for badminton and rhythmic gymnastics.
The two most expensive venues - the $500 million Bird’s Nest and the adjoining $200 million National Aquatics Centre, nicknamed the Water Cube – will also be most expensive to maintain.
The deputy general manager of the Bird’s Nest, Zhang Hengli, told the China Business News newspaper that it could take 30 years for the 90,000-plus seat stadium to repay the cost of its construction, adding that at least $19 million in annual revenue will be needed to cover maintenance and debt payments.
To avoid a transformation of these iconic venues into embarrassing white elephants, the authorities have decided to raise funds by any means possible. The Water Cube will make money by licensing its name for a bottled water brand, amongst other strategies. It will eventually be transformed into a training and recreation centre, complete with water slides, retail outlets and nightclubs.
The Bird’s Nest’s new owner is a consortium led by state-run investment group CITIC which will now auction naming rights to the stadium. After having its seat capacity reduced to 80,000 the arena will also be used as an entertainment centre for concerts and exhibitions and will form the home of local football club, Guoan.
Athlete housing will be converted into luxury apartments for prices of $2,900-$4,400 per square metre, high even for Beijing’s booming real estate market.
AEG Worldwide, a U.S. sports and entertainment management firm has already teamed up with the National Basketball Association’s NBA China to secure the rights to manage the Wukesong indoor stadium, which staged the basketball competition.
The plans for the post-games use of the Olympics venues demonstrate a combination of pragmatism, consumerism and internationalism that are also the hallmarks of the Bird’s Nest generation. The venues and the young generation are further united in a major challenge that both now face: avoiding the empty nest syndrome.
6 months ago