Beijing 2008: a sterile affair

2008-08-22 00:00

China desperately wanted to stage the greatest Olympic Games ever and no expense was spared in the quest to turn the event into a dazzling celebration of the new superpower.

The Organising Committee claims to have spent a total of $40 billion on stadiums, infrastructure and a vast city full of statues, floral displays and banners. This is an extraordinary budget compared to the $3 billion South Africa will spend in 2010, but it is certainly an understatement; in truth, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, closing in Beijing tomorrow evening, have not had any budget at all.

And yet — China has still failed.

Sure, the facilities have been outstanding. From the Bird’s Nest main stadium to the Cube swimming centre, a series of space age venues have transformed large areas of a normally polluted, congested city into a money-is-no-issue playground for the architects of the world.

Sure, the Chinese team has “won”, securing the most gold medals, displacing the “EWE-ESS-EH” at the top of the medal list and delighting the select few citizens who have been to enter the venues and join crazed chants of “Chung-guo! Jia yiao!” (China! Keep going!).

Sure, the 850 000 volunteers have been magnificent. From what I have seen in Beijing, not one of this latter day terracotta army has been anything less than helpful, charming and polite, gamely speaking English and wishing everyone “a wonderful day”. In addition, 10s of thousands of willing students have enrolled as assistants, each earning a total of R530 for working 16 consecutive 18-hour days.

Yet, ultimately, China has failed to stage the greatest Olympic Games, because, having prepared a wonderful stage on a stunning scale, the authorities have refused to get the party started.

Above all, the Olympics should be a celebration, humanity at its best, a joyful gathering of athletes and spectators from around the world, as it was in Barcelona ’92, Atlanta ’96, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. However, in Beijing, the Communist regime have been so fearful and paranoid that somebody would unfurl a Free Tibet banner or stage a pro-democracy demonstration that they have effectively forbidden any kind of gathering. They have failed to trust either visitors or their own people to assemble and celebrate; consequently they have condemned their Games to be sterile, sanitised and soulless.

Twenty-six public viewing sites were planned around the city, but none appear to have opened.

Mass community festivals were prepared months in advance, but the authorities closed down 17 of the 18 events hours before the Opening Ceremony.

Locals have effectively been kept away, told to keep their cars off the streets and watch on TV.

Visitors have been discouraged because travel visas were only issued to people in possession of event tickets: 500 000 were expected but barely 200 000 arrived.

The result has been empty seats at many venues. For example, the grandstands at the 10 km swimming event were almost completely empty, but it was impossible to buy a ticket at the gate.

Officials appear to have decreed that, if they could not control who was watching, they would not risk admitting just anybody. So they proclaim every ticket has been sold, yet there are spaces even at the evening athletics.

The Olympic Green is a fantastic space, two kilometres long and 600 m wide, incorporating the Bird’s Nest, the Cube and four other venues. Bordered by a massive media centre and reputedly the finest Athletes Village ever, it is a perfect setting for a great Olympic festival, a fantasy landscape of wide avenues, ornate gardens and water features, beautiful hospitality areas, immaculate walk-through sponsor pavilions, hundreds of plasma screens and a sensational sound system.

Yet, incredibly, for the first four days, only a few thousand people were allowed inside the Green.

The sponsors complained and officials did distribute more tickets, mostly to employees of known “safe” companies. Ordinary members of the public seem to have been kept outside. No future Host City will ever afford such amazing facilities, but they have been completely wasted.

In the end, Beijing 2008 has been an astonishing, mind-boggling, gleaming Ferrari of a major sports event, but the authorities cut off the fuel of emotion — and the party never even started.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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