BEIJING – This summer the world’s eyes are on Brazil, but six years ago everyone’s attention was on China for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Last week, a few friends and I traveled to Beijing and visited the former Olympic site to see why the New York Times and other media outlets praised it as the “best ever.” China spent $40 billion on the games, almost four times what Brazil is spending on the World Cup. However, what we saw was completely underwhelming, visibly falling apart and under-capacity. As the Financial Times reported: White elephant syndrome has struck Beijing.
We arrived on the subway to one of the nicest and cleanest stops in Beijing. When we emerged into the hazy afternoon, we were in an eerie vast open space with 100 or so street vendors catering to approximately 2,000 people. This seemed strange since Beijing’s population is over 20 million. Signs still advertised for the 2008 Olympics, but had fallen into neglect and disrepair. The once beautiful river was completely drained and occupied by heavy machinery. We read that 3,000 tickets a day are sold for the Water Cube, which is now a water park, but after walking around the building we did not see a single person waiting in line. The deputy manager of the Water Cube, Yang Qiyong, said the facility barely broke even despite getting a $1.5 million government subsidy.
Through the smog, the Bird’s Nest was as elegant as ever. As we drew closer it looked more like a steel prison than a stadium. It was one of the nicer facilities we saw, besides the Water Cube and the subway station, but more workers were inside than visitors. We wanted to rent Segways and race on around the track, or even step foot on it, but after asking around for 30 minutes we left after snapping a few photos. For a stadium that cost almost half-billion dollars, we could only find that it hosted a mock opening ceremony event, a few concerts, and some soccer exhibition matches. As Chinese artis Ai Weiwei said, “Beijing would become the most quickly forgotten games,” especially since it costs $11 million a year to maintain and will take 30 years to pay off.
After leaving the Olympic site, I could not help but think of Brazil and its four predicted white elephant stadiums in Cuiaba, Manaus, Natal and Brasilia. The country is already $2 billion over budget for stadiums alone and President Rousseff has yet to spend the promised R50 billion on transportation or allocate any funding for her proposed social programs. The World Cup, like the Beijing Olympics, has separated itself from the general population by making most tickets too expensive for ordinary citizens and has not figured out how to integrate the stadiums into city life. After the World Cup, tickets to games will still be too expensive for most citizens. For example, in February the biggest derby match of the year between Flamengo and Vasco da Gama only attracted 13,245 fans in a stadium that seats almost 80,000. As Beijing has shown, the World Cup stadiums will be another monument to a country opening its doors to the world, but without becoming the catalyst and enabler they were originally supposed to be.