Eternal flame: Did the Beijing Olympics leave a successful legacy?

Ten years on, does the flame still burn, or simply burn holes in pockets?

Image: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia Commons
The internet's got a certain soft spot for abandoned buildings. A little fetish for disused this and overgrown that. At each four-year Olympic turn, you might say there's a dark sort of lip-licking at what might come next, as the show-pony venues built for a two-week spectacular turn to decrepit, idle white elephants.

Images of Rio 2016's various barren arenas surfaced alarmingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, quickly in the aftermath of the games, while the majority of those from Athens 2004 sit as monuments to what was a financially disastrous Olympic homecoming.

It's all visually striking for those at a distance, sure, but for the cities themselves they're an unwelcome (if not unexpected) burden. It's the topics of legacy and exorbitant costs that bring about an unquestionably rational skepticism when hosting bids arrive – if they do arrive, that is.

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Rio's Maracanã, six months after the 2016 Olympics. Image: Diego Baravelli via Wikimedia Commons

The IOC is receiving fewer bids than ever, and more 'Why No One Wants The Olympics' sorts of articles are filling up the web, as legacy becomes an ever more sizeable hurdle for Olympic organisers and urban planners wishing to justify their lavish spending. So what of the city that hosted the single most expensive summer outing in history?

While there may be some discrepancies and technicalities surrounding the final ledger, the total cost of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games is widely held to be around 44 billion USD. Until Sochi wildly overrun its 10 billion USD budget by a cool extra 41 billion in preparing for the 2014 Winter Games, China's was the most sizeable outlay ever seen, outstripping the previous record of Athens by a comfy 29 billion.

As early as June 2009, Chinese state media was already reporting 'an operating profit of over 1 billion yuan' from the games, while simultaneously refuting the 'most expensive ever' tag, presumably not including some of the wider-reaching, indirect infrastructure costs; a 2016 study found that direct, sports-related expenses for the Olympics were an estimated 6.8 billion USD.

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The Bird's Nest still looks the part. Image: Tom Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons

But Beijing 2008 was about more than sports. As opposed to Athens before it and Rio beyond, China did have the luxury of deeper pockets in a time of relative boom, and used the Olympics as a platform to overhaul Beijing's permanent infrastructure, with such investment bringing tangible long-term benefits to the capital's citizens, most notably in its transport network. It apparently did so without running up debt, Reuters reported as early as 2008.

Ten years is a long time, though, and raft of legacy costs have appeared, most notably in keeping up the steely centrepiece venue, the Bird’s Nest stadium. Built for a cool 423 million USD in time for the games, it reportedly racks up a further 11 million USD each year in operating costs.

No permanent tenant for this grand structure has been found, with Beijing's top football team, Guoan, backing out of an agreement to play home games there, and it's had to settle for a role as a multi-use venue. All sorts has gone on: Jackie Chan gigs, stadium tours, segway rides around the track, annual pre-season friendlies, equestrian, League of Legends e-sports world championships, and the 2015 IAAF World Championships. Each year, it gets turned into fake snow-filled playground (perhaps practicing for 2022), it's got an Olympic museum, and you can even now walk upon its roof.


The Top Wonder of Bird's Nest Air Corridor – not a snappy name, but not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

The long-term solution that stadium bosses must desire is yet to be found, but they're certainly trying it all, and seem willing enough to foot the bill, for now. There's a fair enough schedule of events at the Bird’s Nest; 91,000-person, max-capacity events, however, are infrequent.

Elsewhere, the city's not been devoid of abandoned Olympic sites – the kayak course and beach volleyball arena in particularly have gained attention as sites for urban explorers – but post-Olympic venue usage has largely been just about okay; the decision to build numerous venues on university campuses was seemingly a pragmatic one, endowing many of the city's best schools with good-quality sports facilities.

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The Beijing Ducks hit the court in their post-Olympic home. Image: Max12Max via Wikimedia Commons

The now Cadillac Arena is home to Beijing's premier basketball team, the Ducks, and is also a frequent tour stop-off for international music stars, while the National Tennis Center hosts the China Open every year; the dazzling Water Cube had its capacity reduced, was opened to the public, and even incorporated a psychedelic, slide-laden water park.

It’s fair to say nothing's hitting the attendance heights of '08, but to this day, there's still a far more palpable buzz around the Olympic Park than any other in the world: it's enshrined on tour group itineraries, and its daily visitor figures in the thousands are something most other host cities' Olympic parks can only dream of. You might say it could be a lot worse.

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Team China emerge at Rio 2016. Image: Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn't an explicit aim of Beijing 2008, but with any games, there will always be hope of piquing national interest in sports and fitness, inspiring a next generation and heralding in a new era of sustained sporting achievement. Four years later, China would rake in a similarly strong 91 medals in London to finish second in the overall standings, though 2016 would see them slip to third with a tally of 70, in what state media described as their 'worst Olympic flop'. Hopes will be high for a better showing at Tokyo 2020.

At the not-so-elite, sport-for-all level, the effects on participation may be hard to fully gauge – any stats on how many pensioners are working out on public gym gear every day? – but statistics on the value of the nation's sports industry and consumers' newfound willingness to invest in sports do point to a nation more active than ever. Of course, increases in disposable income among a growing middle class have contributed, among other factors, but in 2016, China's sports industry was valued at a whopping 1.9 trillion RMB.


Pollution, polluting Beijing.

As for many of the political hot potatoes that have swirled around the Olympics, Beijing and China since before and during the games, you might say that some are still baking: air pollution was a hot topic at the time, and has continued to take up a significant portion of all our day-to-day thinking, though 2017 did see a reportedly drastic improvement, that led many to claim Beijing was winning its 'war against pollution'.

International discussions of rights and legal controversies still continue, but post-2008, we do see a world seemingly more engaged than ever with the Middle Kingdom: 'There is little doubt that the Beijing Games had a significant impact on China’s image to the rest of the world,' said one 2014 study of Beijing's legacy.

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Image: wuqiang_beijing via Wikimedia Commons

Such a legacy is an immensely complex issue, one tough to summarise over a fly-by article like this. On the whole, though, it does seem that Beijing is in most regards doing a decent job. Drawing comparisons between other host may often be futile, given each city's particular circumstances, but the failures of games such as Rio's do bring into perspective the relative successes of Beijing 2008.

It's by no means perfect, but the flame still flickers.

If there's one unprecedented thing that Beijing 2008 did develop, at least at the official level, it was a lust for more Olympics in the near future – a craving that was satisfied with the successful bid for the 2022 Winter Games.

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