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Beijing Olympics – A curse or a boon?(Part 1)

When the 29th Olympics opened in Beijing on 8th August amid a spectacular display of fireworks and sky dancers, it was watched with awe and admiration by lakhs of spectators at the Nest Stadium and billions more on TV screens across the globe. When the event closed on 24th August, it was hailed as the best Games ever organized. The British delegate who took the baton from the Mayor of China wondered whether his country could match the show in London in 2012.

Indeed, China achieved one of its major objectives in holding the Games: to show the world that it was no longer a poor, weak country but one which was ‘modernised’, globally integrated and which could share the dais with the most advanced countries as an equal.

Truly, there was evidence of new found national pride which held them together. As Dr. David Lampton of the Johns Hopkins University informed a Congressional Committee, “….. in the minds of most Chinese, at this point the Games are more about the pride they all feel in a resurgent China than it is a referendum on Chinese Communist Party rule.” (Testimony “China on the eve of the Olympics”, Hearing, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, July 23, 2008.)

Indeed, it was a long and tortuous journey – a journey of development and growth. What the world witnessed at Beijing was a small, if representative, part of that process.

China’s desire to host the Games started in the late 1980s. It made the official bid in 1993. However, its detractors, led by the U.S., could use the human rights card, especially the Tiananmen Square tragedy and sabotage the bid though many members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were keen to bring China into the Olympic movement.

China was undeterred in pursuing its objective. It declined to bid for the 2004 Games, but, in 1998, it offered its candidature for 2008 Games. Several analysts have studied the motives behind China’s desire to hold the Games. There are the standard ones. A mega event like the Olympics would be a catalyst to spur growth in Beijing and adjacent areas. It would attract huge public investment in infrastructure in roads, utilities, etc which would enhance the quality of life in the capital city. Beijing had been neglected in the earlier plans and needed extra infusion of capital.

More than the economic, non-economic factors seemed to hold sway. It would increase China’s international prestige and project its image as a strong and united country. As Prof. Ryan Ong explained, “The need for international prestige has long been a key part of China’s foreign policy thinking, as its leaders remember all too well China’s ‘century of humiliation’ in 1800s.” (New Beijing, Great Olympics: Beijing and its Unfolding Olympic Legacy, Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Vol. 4 No.2, 21 May, 2004.) There were thus multiple objectives when China began its bid for the Games.

China’s Central Committee decided to bid for 2008 Olympics and secured a formal application from the Beijing City. The City application was sent by the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) to the IOC in November 1998.

On April 7, 1999, the IOC accepted Beijing’s candidature and began its consultations with local authorities seeking information, sending detailed questionnaire, etc.

China’s State Council approved the establishment of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee (BOBICO) on September 7, 1999. The Committee included representatives from various agencies at state and national levels. It was clear that China looked upon Olympics as a project of supreme importance and began work with all concerned agencies in a coordinated manner.

BOBICO sent its completed questionnaire in June 2000. The IOC Executive Board formally announced acceptance of Beijing’s candidature along with Osaka, Istanbul, Toronto and Paris.

This was followed by grueling sessions of examination, inspection and evaluation of facilities, both existing and planned. IOC’s Evaluation covered sporting and non-sporting facilities to support the holding of a major event like the Olympics. In its report, the Evaluation Commission remarked that Beijing’s bid was “excellent” and recommended its candidature along with those of Toronto and Paris.

The Commission did take note of potential environmental and traffic problems in Beijing, but felt that those could be overcome with Beijing’s planning efforts and strong government capability. These conclusions were prescient and were vindicated by later events when the Games were held.

China made relentless efforts on a war footing to control pollution, rain, etc. As Business Week put it grudgingly, “Beijing did have clean air during the Games. This can be credited to massive industrial shutdown across North China, strict traffic controls that took almost 2 million cars off the streets, and a huge cloud-seeding effort to bring rain and clear out haze.” (Beijing Olympics: Winners and Losers, August, 25,, 2008.)

The Evaluation Commission’s report noted that a Beijing Olympics would “leave a unique legacy to China and sport.” By the time the final decision of the IOC was due, it was clear that Beijing was the frontrunner because of its advanced state of preparedness. Yet, Beijing won by a large margin only on the second ballot.

On July 13, 2001, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch finally announced that Beijing had won the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. As one report put it, the entire city erupted into “flag-waving, horn-honking, music-jamming, firecracker-exploding party.” No wonder. It was vindication of years of efforts made by China to get acceptance to host the Olympics. More importantly, it was viewed as global acceptance of China as an economic power.

Several analysts have narrated in detail the efforts made by China to make the Games memorable. These cover steps taken before the acceptance of the bid and, more importantly, those taken after the bid’s acceptance. China mobilized financial along with its efforts to involve the entire human resources in organizing the Games. There was overwhelming public support for holding the Games. During the polls conducted by the IOC research team, it found that 96 percent of Beijing’s population supported the Olympics. Other private agencies had also reported similar waves of public support.

What is more significant is the meticulous planning which went into the organization of various facilities, structures, etc in different locations. All the wings of the Chinese government, regional agencies, private investors and organisations took it as a project to be executed with dedication and clock work precision. In December, the government set up the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympics Games (BOCOG) with broad based involvement of all stakeholders.

A three phase plan was worked out. The first phase – from October 2001 to mid 2003- was for preparatory work and for drafting and initial implementation of Olympic Action Plan (OAP). The second phase – from mid-2003 until mid-2006- was for construction of facilities. The final phase- from mid-2006 until the opening date of the Games- was for double checking the facilities, test runs of competitions, final and last minute adjustments.

With such an approach, it was possible for the China to complete construction and facilities by 2007 that is well in advance of the date of the Games. Mr. Hein Verbruggen, Chief International Inspector of the IOC, reported early in July 2008, “The quality of preparation, the readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail for these Games have set a gold standard for the future.”

By March 2002, the BOCOG released its OAP outlining the committee’s strategic themes, objectives and its overall plan for the Olympics. While dealing with the construction of facilities, the OAP devoted attention to new constructions, distribution of facilities and post-Games use of the facilities. It sought to dovetail them with the pre-existing Tenth Five Year Plan and Beijing’s own “Strategy for Three-Phased Development.”

The Plan was prepared for 37 competition venues. Of them, 31 were in Beijing and of them only 12 are new permanent venues and 4 of them in campus. The idea was to minimize the investment and upgrade existing facilities. The largest share of facilities would be located around Olympic Green which would encompass the Olympic Village, Media Village and communications infrastructure. The facilities created in universities were modified structures which would be used as training sites during Olympics and would be taken over and run by the Universities after the Olympics. It was also planned that constructions outside Beijing in other municipalities would be taken over and managed by them after the Olympics.

Much attention was paid to transportation and for improvement of airports, roads and bus systems. These included new Ring Roads, expressways, airport construction, etc. The vision was to integrate Beijing with Hebei province and with greater Northeastern China. The BOCOG worked closely with the IOC to ensure that preparations ran smoothly and were on schedule.

On all accounts, China showed to the world its technological and engineering capability. New monuments were created. The third terminal of Beijing Airport is shaped as a kilometer long dragon and is the largest building in the world. The National Stadium termed the “Bird Nest” is a basket like structure made of 50,000 tons of intertwined steel pillars. It is an engineering marvel. The National Swimming Centre called “Water Cube” is designed as a giant box coated with transparent Teflon membrane mimicking water bubbles upon which light and image can be projected. The basket Ball Stadium doubles as a hotel and shopping mall with ten-storey high LED Screen facades which can be used for broadcasting events inside the stadium and later for city advertisements after the Games. These are design and engineering marvels which show case China’s state of art technology and economic progress. They had associated foreign architects or consultants. But, by and large, they were sourced indigenously. Private sector made a significant contribution. In future, tourist groups will be taken to see these Olympic monuments along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. For seven years, ever since China started preparations for Beijing Olympics, the difficulties it encountered lay outside the country and not within. The record of work done both before and during the Games testifies to that. However, China had to contend against repeated attacks and forebodings from critics abroad. These persisted until the day when the Games were to commence.

The most vocal were the human rights activists led by the U.S. They voiced their fears over rise of dissension within China and attempts by terrorists to disrupt the Games. Then there were Uigars from the west. These fears were unwarranted.

Some analysts have explained that China was able to blunt local dissatisfaction by involving the widest possible section of the people in the preparation for the Games. This was unfair. It would not have been practicable to get the cooperation of one million volunteers even in major democracies. Many would have gone for contract labour.

As for terrorist attacks from abroad, China had a better record than Seoul. Apart from showing a firm hand in dealing with protests, China made use of the latest technology (read, surveillance along airports, streets, etc) and a show of grim, silent determination. The Games were events free.

One major source was from Tibetans or pro-Tibetans. It is unclear who funded or orchestrated them. There was an attempt to spoil China’s party. However, China’s determination and tactful handling kept the trouble out of the way. Even the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who tried to make an issue of it, finally attended the inaugural ceremony. This was in no small measure due to the determination of the U.S. President to keep faith. As Prof. Lampton told the Committee, “Agree or not, President Bush’s long-standing and consistent decision to attend the Games’ opening ceremony… stands in contrast to hesitations, bobbing and weaving and refusals of some other national leaders.” Moreover, for China participation in the Games had become the litmus of a country’s friendship with China. It was no surprise that 204 countries participated in the Games.

The other canard raised was about pollution and traffic congestion in Beijing during the Games. This has been covered in an earlier paragraph. The Chinese organizers showed that they could push back rain clouds, control weather and keep pollution away.

At the luncheon given inside the Great Hall of the People President Hu Jintao addressed the gathering of Presidents and Prime Ministers from across the glob. He said, “The historic moment we have long awaited is arriving.” Truly it was. Amid revelries and loud music, the message carried was for harmony. As a New York Times columnist said, “China had called the torch relay a Journey of Harmony.” The message was ringing loud during the Games.

Reports suggest that China had spent around $43 billion in organizing the Olympics. From the date when China embarked on the project, there have been Cassandras warning about the curse which will befall China’s economy in the post Games years. There is an excited debate on this issue and there are conflicting views. We propose to study those issues in the next part of this article.

(The writer, Mr K.Subramanian, is former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Finance,Government of India,New Delhi. He is presently associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies).

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