x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

China weighs up the cost of 2008 Olympics in many different scales

Some say lift in national pride was worth the incredible expense.

BEIJING // There are thousands of people, almost all of them Chinese, walking along the vast pedestrian boulevard that runs through the Olympic park on this July afternoon.

On the right lies the Beijing National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest. To the left is the equally distinctive National Aquatics Centre, usually referred to as the Water Cube. Ahead sits the Beijing National Indoor Stadium and a tower topped with the five Olympic rings.

These are among the more than 10 venues built as part of China's 275 billion yuan (Dh158.11bn) 2008 Summer Olympics, believed to be almost three times the budget of any previous Games.

No expense was spared, because the Games of the XXIX Olympiad were about much more than staging a global sporting extravaganza.

"We Chinese people feel a sense of pride," says Sheng Xiabing, 68, a shipping industry official visiting with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

"It's the first time we hosted the Olympic Games. It boosted the morale of the whole Chinese nation. It symbolised that China as a nation is progressing."

Few would deny the Games appealed as entertainment, with opening and closing ceremonies of unequalled spectacle. For China they also succeeded in sporting terms, with the country's tally of 51 gold medals the most of any nation.

"A lot of state money goes into the schooling of athletes. With the success of the national team, that affirmed the legitimacy of that system, even though it's extremely expensive," says James Roy, a senior analyst at China Market Research Group, whose interests include the sports industry.

But the Olympics has not left a completely positive legacy for China.

Some of the expensive venues, including the 3.5bn yuan Bird's Nest, have struggled to develop a role for themselves.

China's football and basketball leagues have yet to emerge from the shadow of their more celebrated foreign peers and so, in the absence of a major national sporting scene, the Bird's Nest hosts occasional one-off sporting events, concerts and other events instead of regular fixtures.

The stadium attracts tourists at 80 yuan (Dh46.3) for general admission, although in the first half of last year, state media reported, visitor numbers were 50 per cent down on those during the same period in 2010 as Olympic fever continued to subside.

The film screened inside the stadium shows scenes from the Games, and gives the 91,000-seat stadium a sense of nostalgia at odds with its hoped-for role as an active sporting venue.

The stadium will, however, host the 2015 athletics world championships, and the success of the Olympics may help China secure the rights to hold further major international events.

"I think [the Olympics] will certainly be a very strong positive in any eventual bid for example to host the World Cup or another large [competition]," says Mr Roy.

The Water Cube has reinvented itself as a water-based theme park and has been more successful than the Bird's Nest at establishing a role for itself, even if reports suggest it has also struggled to generate profits thus far.

The picture is more upbeat further west at the former Beijing Wukesong Culture and Sports Centre, which hosted basketball games during the 2008 Olympics.

It has become an increasingly popular arena for major events, hosting about 70 last year, including concerts by international musical acts such as Roxette, Usher and Westlife.

But perhaps the most significant physical legacy of the Olympics is not the venues, but the infrastructure built leading up to the Games.

The public in general, and disabled people in particular, now find Beijing a much easier city to travel through, the Beijing Olympic City Development Association says.

"There was improvement of the road, highway, subway, airport and other transportation facilities," the association says, with a new airport terminal among the key landmarks.

While traditionalists lament the loss of historical parts of the city to make way for the Olympic Park, and the fact that hundreds of thousands had to leave their homes, many others regard the developments as bringing Beijing into the 21st century.

"These facilities accelerated urban development. I think the 2008 Olympics at least accelerated Beijing's development by 20 years," says Zhang Wei, the vice director of the multipurpose training hall of the National Olympic Sports Centre.

Mr Zhang also insists, despite reports to the contrary, that the Olympics have heightened the public's interest in sports and fitness, a significant legacy in a country where concern is growing over obesity.

More than 90 million Chinese have diabetes, sometimes as a result of poor fitness.

In particular, Mr Zhang says tennis and fencing, hitherto low-profile sports, have become much more popular.

Ultimately the 2008 Olympics will be remembered as China's coming of age as a modern world power, especially as they were held just as the global financial crisis hit western economies.

It is no surprise the sense of achievement of those visiting the Olympic Park lives on.

"I feel excited and proud seeing the development every time I come here and every time I come to Beijing. It demonstrates to the world that China has great spirit," says Wu Yue, 53, a civil servant from Wuhan in eastern China.

dbardsley@thenational.ae