Four years ago in Beijing: a bombastic opening ceremony, perfect organization, spectacular stadiums. Today, most of these are deserted and hopes for a political opening have not been fulfilled.
Just as Britain ceremoniously opens the Summer Olympic Games in London, some 8,000 kilometers away in China, two English soccer teams will be playing a friendly match at the former Olympic stadium in Beijing. On July 27, Arsenal London and Manchester City will be playing in the "Bird's Nest," a stadium which seats 80,000 spectators.
In China, soccer games are normally only played in smaller stadiums. Only about 10,000 fans show up for matches of Beijing's notoriously corrupt soccer club, Guo'an.
The Olympic stadium in Beijing is hardly used today
Today, the Bird's Nest - the 2008 Olympic landmark with its spectacular steel construction - is mostly empty. It is more of a tourist attraction than a sports arena. It costs six euros to take a peek inside. For one tourist from the eastern Chinese city of Shandong, that is too expensive and he thinks the price should be lowered. Most people are content taking a souvenir photo from the outside anyway.
Chinaput on a great show for the 2008 games. The event that lasted over 16 days, and in which 302 gold medals were presented, was held at 37 venues - many of them with breathtaking architecture. Under the motto "one world, one dream," China invested an estimated 40 billion dollars (30 billion euros) in the Olympic Games - about four times what London is spending. Beijing's infrastructure was improved and expanded, whole neighborhoods revamped. Many visitors to the Olympic grounds also think the money was well spent.
A tourist from China's northeast sees the bird's nest or the blue, shimmering "Water Cube" - the Game's aquatics venue - as symbols of the new China. "Here, you can see China's development and the new buildings. They are really good."
Water Cube redux
The aquatics venue has been turned into a fun park
After the 2008 games, the Water Cube was turned into a recreational water park. The entry fee of 24 euros is too expensive for many people. Whether or not the originally planned 3,000 tickets a day are actually sold was a question the park operators did not want to answer. But here's a hint: there was no line for the water slide.
Several of the smaller 2008 venues, however, actually turned into a success after the games, such as the 20,000-seat indoor stadium, just a few hundred meters from the bird's nest. But many other buildings on the former Olympic grounds are empty and in varying states of decay. One Beijing resident was annoyed about the waste. He felt that at least children or seniors could pursue their sports activities in the empty buildings.
Costs play no role
For the German-based sinologist Thomas Heberer it was clear that the Chinese leadership wanted to present the world an event of superlatives. Issues about the use of venues after the games played no role. "Costs play no role in enterprises like this and follow-up expenses are not considered by the decision-makers."
China tried to give the Olympic Games an environmental twist. There was a lot of talk about "green games." The UN environment organization (UNEP), lauded these efforts in a report published in February 2009. The expansion of the public transportation system was mentioned, in particular, the new subway lines, or the purchase of 4,000 buses which ran on natural gas. It was noted that now 90 percent of Beijing's waste water was being treated and that 30 million trees had been planted, including the Olympic forest park just north of the venue grounds, which has since become a green lung for the city. The park's 680 hectares (1,700 acres) makes it about twice the size of New York's Central Park. The Beijing environment activist, Dai Qing, is happy about the new trees, but she asks, "Where is the water for the trees coming from?" Water in Beijing is in short supply.
The Chinese capital craves more water than it has. Around 70 percent of its water comes from underground, and as a result the water table is dropping precipitously about one meter a year. Even official sources have described the water situation as dangerous. For Dai Qing, the environmental situation as a whole has not improved for the long term. This also has to do with Beijing's growing traffic problem. In 2008, there were some three million cars on the streets. In the four years since, that figure has already climbed to five million.
Traffic in the Chinese capital is still a major problem
China expert Heberer says that the positive effect of the "green games" has, at least, raised awareness about the problem. "The environment as such and environmental protection are now playing a much bigger role in the media and in public discourse," he says.
But other than that, the Olympic Games have not brought about any significant change politically. It was an illusion to believe that the Olympics would lead to political change in China, explains Heberer. The opening of South Korea after the 1988 Summer Games is not transferable to China, he argues.
Activist Dai Qing agrees. Shortly before and during the games in Beijing the media were freer, she says, and otherwise censored foreign media were accessible. But, that did not last long. Today, censorship is stricter than ever.
Author: Matthias von Hein / gb
Editor: Sarah Berning