In terms of sheer spectacle, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing stood far above any Olympics that had come before it. Everything about the Beijing games was exaggerated. Some aspects, like the fantastically opulent opening ceremonies and the beautifully designed center stadium (known colloquially as the Bird’s Nest), made the 2008 Games feel like a wonderfully choreographed ballet showing what can be accomplished when people unite behind a singular goal. Other facets of the games, such as the human rights that were sacrificed for the completion of these endeavors, paint the extravagance in a bleaker light.
While the memory of the Beijing Games may be in the rear view at this point, one aspect of the Games lies steadfastly cemented within the city limits. The stadiums, outdoor arenas, multitudes of hotels and other athlete accommodations have fallen into disrepair, and the weeping remnants of the Olympic structures are making parts of Beijing look positively post-apocalyptic.
The fate of the Olympic structures, built with such a narrow focus, was unclear as the Games neared completion. Spaces like the Bird’s Nest (which costs 9 million dollars a year to maintain) could fill many needs, as most large stadiums can (in addition to hosting international events, the Bird’s Nest can also be toured for a small fee), but more unique structures like the rowing park or the volleyball stadium had a more uncertain future. It is unclear as to whether the longevity of the structures was on the minds of the Olympic planners in Beijing, who were possibly lost in a fog of shortsightedness due to the looming international attention about to be heaped onto their shoulders.
It is unfair to say that Beijing’s Olympic committee are the only planners who built structural uni-taskers in the face of impressing a global audience. Almost every Olympic competition in the last 50 years has encountered a similar problem with regards to myopic design, and the same goes for those who plan the World Cup and other similarly-sized international events.
However, the sheer amount of money invested into the Olympic village and surrounding competition spaces in Beijing far outnumbered any previous Olympic competition, and it’s tough to not feel like Beijing threw a considerable amount of money away by not creating buildings that could have a life after the Games had ended.
Reports on the actual amount spent on the Beijing Games vary, but the widely agreed upon number for the total budget comes out to around 40 billion dollars. While compared to the recent Olympic Games in Sochi, which supposedly cost 51 billion, and was generally seen as a colossal quagmire (I guess 51 billion doesn’t get you basic amenities like running water or wooden doors), the Beijing games feel normal. However, when juxtaposed to the paltry 700 million price tag of the Torino games just two years prior, the Chinese spending seems reckless. Fun fact: The Italian government created a national lottery game to help recoup its losses from the games (and yes, more often than not the Games are a net loss, profit-wise, but you can’t put a price on international fame, I guess).
On that note, perhaps it is wrong to view the expanding cost of the Games as solely a game of profit through loss-leading. Many would argue that what the host nation is really buying with all the money is not infrastructure, but rather something less tangible. What the host nation is truly spending its money on is an international stage. The Olympics provide a unique opportunity for the host nation to have a moment, albeit a relatively brief one, of international attention where they can show its national wares, so to speak.
A recent example of the Olympics as national hype man can be seen in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. At the end of the 20th century, Australia was plagued with the problem of creating a new identity for itself on the global stage. During its time as a British colony, Australia was often referred to as simply a branch of the British national family, rather than a unique society with its own rich cultural history. This identity problem was further complicated by the fact that Australia is one of the few developed countries within what many refer to as the Global South, or the predominantly underdeveloped nations that lie south of the Equator. Because of these factors, Australia is often forgotten when referring to the engines that drive the global economy and culture.
It is for these reasons, and many more, that Sydney put in a bid to host the 2000 Summer Games. The bid’s chief-executive, Rod McGeoch, repeatedly argued that the games were an imperative part of securing Sydney’s status as an Asia-Pacific regional headquarters and international tourism destination. This attitude shows a shift from the “Olympics as a one-time shot in the arm economically for a nation” mindset, towards the Olympics as a branding tool for nations not fully on the global radar. While the effects of the Olympic Games economically over the period before and after the Games is quite small, they did serve as a way to show the world a culturally rich and independent Australia.
The idea essentially becomes that if you can wow an international audience just once, the dividends will pay off over the long term. Financially, both the 2000 and 2008 Olympics left deep scars in the pockets of their host cities, and stranded a great amount of expensive infrastructure, but the international ripple effect caused by hosting the Olympics still radiates throughout each host city.
The lesson from the Beijing Games is more clear than that of the Games in Sydney. Shortsighted event planning and a lack of forethought turned many of the once mesmerizing structures that made up the Olympic village into ever-present warnings to those hosting the Games in the future. warnings that nation’s like Russia clearly didn’t take into consideration when spending over $50 billion dollars in Sochi on what now seems like wasted infrastructure. The 2016 Olympics are being hosted by Brazil, who recently received a lot of criticism for their reckless spending habits tied to the 2014 World Cup, so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of confidence in the idea that they will have learned from China’s mistakes. However, for those glorious two weeks of stirring competition and national pride, all the spending will seem worth it in spades.
– Ben Kessler