Written by Savan Wijewardene
Olympic host 2008
Four years ago, the world watched transfixed as hundreds of tonnes of pyrotechnics adorned the Beijing night sky to herald the beginning of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games (Games of the XXIX Olympiad).
More than 11,000 athletes gathered to test their strength and push the limits of human physical achievement in the capital of the world’s most populous nation. Over the following 16 days, a global audience of 4.7 billion was treated to feats of strength, endurance, and courage that would result in 43 new Olympic records.
The Olympics, however, are far more than an athletic competition and the Beijing games in particular were part of a much greater story – the resurgence of modern China. For the duration of the competition as much attention was paid to Beijing, the rising seat of a 5,000-year-old civilisation, as was paid to the athletes.
For its part, the Chinese government spent US$2 billion on the games’ venues, the largest amount spent on any sporting event in history. An even greater sum was spent on new subway lines, upgraded road infrastructure, public toilets, and citywide cleanliness campaigns.
With such lavish expenditure and so much national pride at stake, it was little surprise that the games were an enormous success with the host nation topping the medals table. The crowning achievement of the Beijing Olympics, however, lies in the fact that the games continue to breathe life into the city. The party that began with the opening ceremony has continued as China’s capital marches towards global prominence.
The Olympics brought nearly half a million visitors to a city where the movement of foreigners had been restricted until the late 1990s, and four years after the games a new spirit of openness and confidence continues to surge through the metropolis.
The Olympic Green, which housed the games’ major venues, remains the most tangible physical monument to the city’s 21st century renaissance. This 1,215-hectare green, six times the size of the park built for the previous Athens Games, now stands alongside Tiananmen Square as Beijing’s premier open space.
Every evening, hundreds of Beijing locals gather on the vast expanse to fly kites, do gentle tai chi, ogle the architecture, and enjoy the gardens, as tourists stop to take the now obligatory photos of themselves with their backs to the iconic Bird’s Nest and Water Cube. The Olympic venues are more than simply backdrops for photographs. The Bird’s Nest regularly draws enormous crowds to concerts by major Chinese stars, and sporting events from football matches to rodeo keep the structure lively. In winter, tonnes of snow are deposited within the immense steel lattice and the stadium becomes a winter sports park, giving the residents of a largely snowless city the chance to hurl themselves down perfect pistes and snow slides.
The Water Cube, with its distinct blue bubble-clad exterior, has undergone a more extensive metamorphosis, with half its space becoming a water park in 2010. A giant wave pool, pneumatic slides, 13 flumes, chutes, ramps, and year-round tropical temperatures mean the venue is now perpetually flowing with visitors.
The games’ enormous former media centre and venue for the fencing and shooting tournaments has become the most sought-after conference space in the world.
While individual sites have continued to evolve and adapt themselves to post-Olympic roles, the material legacy of the games extends far beyond the original venues. The Olympics transformed a vast swathe of western Beijing from swamp into city space, and the heart of this development is the outstanding Olympic Forest Park.
Sprawling over 400 acres of sculpted lawns, rolling hills, rivulets, and placid reservoirs, the park is the key to the games’ environmental legacy. It provides the first real green corridor in a city that can sometimes seem an unending expanse of grey concrete.
Wandering though the dense young forest, the damp wetlands, and carp ponds that literally bubble with life, you’ll struggle to believe you’re still in Beijing. Ultimately, this green space serves as the lungs and kidneys of north Beijing and will most likely prove the most lasting physical legacy of the games.
But even beyond these vital green spaces, the true legacy of the Olympic Games having been in Beijing is the change in attitude among city authorities and residents; a new focus on the human environment and quality of life that had long been absent in a city obsessed with stability and economic growth.
After years of utilitarianism, this interest in the environment and in an aesthetic legacy is a real signal of new confidence and underpins the fact that Beijing is set to hold the world’s attention for the foreseeable future.
Few previous Olympics have had such a profound impact on the lives of the host city’s inhabitants.
To understand the extent of the games’ legacy, you need only take a trip on Beijing’s modern and efficient subway. While today it is one of the largest underground networks in the world, with 15 lines and 200 stations, until the Olympic Games was announced in 2001 the city had only two lines and a handful of stations.
The pre-Olympic rush to make Beijing ready for the world saw the fastest and most ambitious underground construction programme the world had ever seen. The expansion of the system changed the face of the city by allowing new neighbourhoods to spring up, shortening commuting times, and changing the routine of nearly all of the metropolis’ 20 million residents.
As if the Beijing Olympic Park didn’t already have enough monumental architecture, the enormous new Observation Tower is being constructed at the western edge of the site. On completion, the 243-metre tower will be one of the tallest structures in Beijing and promises the best views of the Olympic venues and the city. Even now, the tower’s half completed steel skeleton provides an amazing backdrop for photographs. The investment in this new edifice is an indication of the ambition and intentions of Beijing city authorities. The Olympic site will continue to play host to cutting-edge projects that showcase Beijing’s global ambitions.