The Olympics are supposed to be all glamour and glory. Yet the patriotic flag waving can’t disguise the fact that they cost a fortune and almost never leave anything in their wake. Despite the dubious claims of the International Olympic Committee, there has hardly ever been an Olympic legacy worth shouting about. Without a hint of irony, the London Olympics concreted over several football pitches, used regularly by teams from all over London, to create a car park – that’s some legacy.
There are so many examples of Olympic legacies magnificently failing to deliver on inflated promises – Athens anyone? – it is a surprise any country will host them. I look at London’s Olympic legacy and see only a lot of taxpayer money disappearing into the pockets of international finance. So I approached a nighttime stroll around China’s former Olympic Park with a degree of scepticism. As with so much else about Beijing, this was an eye-opening experience.
The former Olympic site was crowded with people, flooded with colourful light and buzzing with a party atmosphere despite there being no obvious reason for anyone to be there. Then again, I was there and quite a large number of the 140 million domestic tourists who visit Beijing every year have a visit to the Olympic Park on their list of things to do. It may not seem like an obvious attraction, but a walk through this area was brilliant.
The National Olympic Stadium – known by it’s nickname, the Bird’s Nest – is magnificent, especially illuminated and reflected in the calm waters of a nearby lake. The stadium, and the metal lattice that is its outstanding feature, used 36km of steel in its construction and cost US$435 million. Close by is the equally futuristic looking National Swimming Stadium, translucent blue light bathing the building’s energy saving ‘skin’. It was the people though, obviously enjoying themselves enormously, who made it so much fun.
Beijing’s Olympics were never far from controversy, not least because of human rights and massive costs. In a country with huge levels of poverty, total costs were around US$40 billion – the most expensive games in history. China’s appalling human rights record didn’t prevent the IoC awarding the games to them, nor did it prevent all but one National Olympic Committee from participating – Brunei withdrew its two athletes for no apparent reason, I think it fair to say that this didn’t impact on the medal tables.
I recalled a news story as I wondered around, a ‘sign of the times’ cautionary tale for our generation. China passed a law prohibiting the use of drugs in animals earmarked for slaughter and consumption at the Olympic Village. Animals were fed organic diets because athletes might fail drug tests as a result of eating the meat. That’s all fine of course, but does beg the question, “What about all the people who are eating drugged up burgers?”
Despite the controversies and the scary meat production, the games themselves were an unqualified global success, and instilled massive national pride in people all across the country. Perhaps that is why so many people come to visit the site even though there are no sports to see – a 21st Century shrine to the modern China.
I enjoyed wandering this area so much I decided to go back and have another look in the morning. The area wasn’t as atmospheric, and all the people had gone, but I did get to see a couple of wonderful signs…smiling seems to be a big deal in Beijing.