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Beijing 2008: The Most Expensive Olympics Ever

Every two years, a massive international sporting event sets up a temporary home in a large, crowded city. Whether it’s the Olympics or the World Cup, these events follow a similar pattern. The host country spends billions preparing for the games by building new infrastructure and sporting venues. Then, a decade later, the photos appear. They show abandoned arenas, seldom-used stadiums, and dilapidated gymnasiums, unused since their Olympic glory. 

On the surface, the Beijing Olympics of 2008 don’t look much different. In some ways, they look much worse. The 45-billion dollar Games were the most expensive in history, costing three times the second most costly. Some venues were demolished, and others became ugly money pits. Yet, the ’08 Olympics were a huge triumph. Despite their flaws, the ’08 Beijing Olympics have become one of the most positive examples of successfully hosting a Summer Olympics.

A Historic Host

On July 13th, 2001, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Beijing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The decision was seen as a win for developing nations, as the Chinese city was chosen over Toronto and Paris. The only previous games held in developing countries were Mexico City in 1968 and Moscow in 1980. But Beijing would be different.

China also became the third East Asian nation to host the games. In the two past instances, Japan in ’64 and South Korea in ’88, the Olympics were something of a coming-out party, with each nation announcing their arrival in the modern global economy. Hosting the games was a way of saying, “we’re open for business,” and that’s exactly what China was shouting to the world.

Like any nation to host an Olympiad, Beijing required dramatic infrastructure updates to welcome the influx of people. However, updating roads, airports, and venues wouldn’t be China’s only issue. The global community immediately began to cast doubt on their ability to host safe, well-run games, a judgment that western countries love to launch at less-developed nations. Other criticism focused on China’s human rights record. The critique most likely to affect the games was the terrible air quality around the capital city of Beijing. The Chinese delegation addressed all these issues in their bid to host, so they got to work. 

The ’08 Olympics would be the largest ever, with 10,942 athletes competing in 28 sports and 302 events, one more than ’04 in Athens. The events called for 37 venues, though only 12 needed to be built from scratch. Equestrian events would be held in Hong Kong, almost 2,000 kilometers away, while sailing competitions were held in Qingdao, about 700 kilometers south of the capital. The games would require immense infrastructure changes, so the budget was set at 6.8 billion dollars.

This number was something of a farce, though. Cost forecasts for the Olympics only include direct costs related to sporting— basically just administration and venues. Money spent on public infrastructure isn’t included in that forecast. According to the Beijing Olympic Committee, that number was closer to 15 billion, almost exactly the cost for Athens. Outside analysts claimed that number is comically low. Realistic estimates placed the total at about 45 billion dollars.

Construction Begins

The largest construction project for the Beijing Olympics was, without a doubt, upgrades to the local airport. Beijing Capital International would need a third runway and terminal to welcome all the visitors to the city. But this was not your typical airport terminal. At the time of completion, Terminal 3 became the world’s largest man-made structure by area. The project required almost a billion dollars worth of loans from Japanese and European banks. The construction began in early 2007. By February of 2008, the terminal was totally operational. In less than one year, the team built the largest building in the world. In a way, this is indicative of the Chinese construction industry. Projects face problems, yes, but not in the same way as western nations. Infrastructure deemed essential by the government is completed in a timely and cost-effective manner.

The best example of this is the construction in Beijing’s historic Hutong neighborhoods. These districts are characterized by old residences and narrow alleys. The Chinese government began tearing down these neighborhoods during Mao’s reign to clear space for wider streets. But, in 2008, many of these neighborhoods remained. When it came time to select locations for many of the biggest venues, the government chose areas inhabited by Hutongs. This wasn’t a strategy to show off the city’s history, though. The Hutongs were demolished to make room for new construction.

This became controversial. Locals claimed the CCP didn’t want foreigners to see how so many of the capital’s residents lived. The government paid homeowners a compensatory sum of 175,000 dollars, but, given their location in the heart of Beijing, many claimed the property value was five or six times that price. An American journalist living in the city alleged that half a million residents were forced to relocate. 

That wasn’t the only sacrifice that the Chinese people made to prepare for hosting. Remember, one of the biggest concerns was the air pollution surrounding Beijing. To address this, the government instituted a handful of dramatic measures. They restricted construction projects unrelated to the games and limited the amount of gas that petrol stations could sell each day. Perhaps most importantly, factories were shut down or restricted in how long they could operate. This intentional economic contraction is typically factored into the total cost of the Olympiad. 

One more restriction was that car-owners were only permitted to drive on certain, alternating days of the week. This reduced Beijing’s traffic by 45% each day and boosted new transportation projects. In the years leading up to the Olympics, the Beijing subway system grew from four lines and 64 stations to 11 lines and 144 stations. One of these lines carried passengers to and from the new airport terminal. An expanded fleet of thousands of buses and minibusses also reduced the amount of traffic on the road. All of this was to accommodate the estimated 4-million daily commuters and travelers during the Olympics. 


Beijing map with 2008 summer olimpic games' locations
Beijing map with 2008 summer olimpic games locations by Xander89 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

By May 2007, about 15 months from the game’s beginning, construction had at least commenced on every one of the country’s 31 venues and 59 training facilities. Among the most extensive projects were the National Stadium, the National Indoor Stadium, the National Aquatics Center, and the Olympic Green. Other venues built from scratch included the Loashan Velodrome and the Beijing Shooting Range. At least 85% of the cost of construction was funded by corporate bids. The estimated total for sports stadiums was about 2.1 billion dollars, though many people question that number.

The entire Olympic Park revolves around the Olympic Green, a large outdoor campus that connects the most significant venues. The Olympic Green was the first project to begin, with ground breaking in 2003. Within the complex stands the city’s largest arena, Beijing National Stadium. Also known as the Birds Nest for its avian-inspired design, the stadium seats 91,000 spectators. The 428 million dollar arena was designed by an architecture team based in Basel. They drew inspiration from Chinese ceramics under the consultation of famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

During the design process, the team decided that the stadium would need a giant glass retractable roof to protect athletes and spectators from the elements. The roof was so heavy that two-dozen 1,000-ton columns were required to support it. Rather than have these columns stand out aesthetically, the team added “random-looking steel,” giving the stadium its signature bird nest look. In 2004, a glass roof at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport collapsed, and Chinese officials were spooked. So, they discarded plans for the roof. While this meant that some spectators may have to deal with a bit of rain, it saved almost 300 million dollars in construction costs and reduced the building’s weight by thousands of tons. Yet, the designers liked the look of what they built, so they stuck with the bird’s nest appearance.

With the exterior complete, the interior flew by. The grass field, almost 8,000 square meters, was laid in less than 24 hours. The stadium was officially opened on June 28th, 2008. More than 17,000 workers contributed to the project. Newspapers reported that 10 people died during construction, though the Chinese government attempted to hide that fact.

The massive stadium hosted the Opening and Closing ceremonies, both of which were hailed as incredible successes. It also held many events and medal ceremonies and became the most iconic image of the Games. However, after the Olympiad, the stadium became something of a white elephant, the colloquial name for Olympic stadiums that are too expensive to demolish yet rarely used and expensive to maintain. Shortly after the games, international superstar Jackie Chan held a sold concert in the stadium. But, it turns out, not many events have the same draw as Jackie Chan. The stadium has rarely been used in recent years. However, that should change before too long. With Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022, the Birds Nest Olympic Stadium will be used again. And thank god. The Chinese government has spent ten million dollars per year maintaining it.

The Beijing National Aquatics Center is a more interesting case study on managing a former Olympic venue. Known as the Water Cube, the 140 million dollar stadium could hold about 17,000 supporters. And every one of those seats was necessary. The Water Cube hosted perhaps the most intense competitions of the games, as American swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals inside. But Phelps wasn’t the only person to find smashing success within the Cube. 25 world records were set within the building, though some skeptics claim this was due more to controversial swimwear than any other factor. 

With the Olympics over, the Beijing government got to work right away to convert the Water Cube to something with more public utility. So, they built a 12,000 square meter public water park. The park reportedly brought in 18 million dollars of revenue each year, breaking even about a decade after its construction. In some ways, it’s the perfect example of how Olympic hosts should look at venues with less traditional uses. Repurposing is expensive, yet it’s often the only way to avoid having a city filled with old Olympic paraphernalia. The Water Cube will be used again in the 2022 Olympics to host curling.

While the Water Cube and, to a much lesser extent, the Birds Nest have become examples of positive outcomes, this is not always the case. The Laoshan Velodrome holds seats for 6,000 spectators and covers 33,000 square meters. Today, it is only used for the ultra-rare cycling competitions within Beijing. For sports that haven’t caught on as much as cycling, the reality is worse. Facilities for rowing, beach volleyball, and kayaking have all fallen into disrepair in recent years.

The rowing facility is marked by a barrier telling visitors not to get too close to the neglected facility. The beach volleyball arena has been entirely unused and unmaintained since 2012 and is literally falling apart. The common thread here is that these sports remain unpopular throughout the country. As the venues can’t be repurposed for the winter Olympics, it seems that they’ll continue falling apart until they’re torn down one day. According to the Chinese government, these venues are meant to instill the Olympic spirit throughout the city.

Still, some venues were torn down immediately after the games. This is seen as an improvement over leaving an expensive eye-sore and reminder of sunk costs. The baseball complex was demolished shortly after the Olympics, though, today, the area where the stadium stood is filled with leftover wreckage. Apparently, the stadium never inspired enough Olympic spirit.

The Olympic Legacy

Like so many Olympic hosts of the past, the Beijing Olympics went far over budget, led to a handful of useless old stadiums, and still cost money today. That may sound like a massive failure, but for a handful of reasons, it was anything but.

First, the Chinese Communist Party had the money to pay for it. While 15 billion dollars in Greece is enough for economists to question whether the Olympics caused a decade-long recession, 45 billion dollars in China wasn’t enough for anyone to blink an eye. Plus, the Chinese economy has done nothing but expand since the Olympics, a trend that began decades before, of course. There is no argument that the Olympics sent China into dire financial straits because that never happened.

Second, while the games forced hundreds of thousands of people to relocate from their ancestral, historic neighborhoods, many practical— some may say cold-hearted— analysts have pointed out that this was precisely what Beijing needed. Beijing has so much history, but, sometimes, bustling cities can have too much history. The Chinese capital was often used as an example of poor urban planning, a cautionary tale for what can happen when a city’s population far outgrows the capacity of the infrastructure. Beijing needed new roads, subway stations, buses, and airports. 

But that wasn’t all that the city built. Like Athens ’04, Beijing ’08 was still adapting to the modern technological world. Social media was everywhere, and foreign athletes and media personalities expected to connect to their fans worldwide. So, the CCP invested 3.6 billion dollars into transforming Beijing into a digital city. Modern broadband, wireless communication, and other somewhat standard telecom and networking technologies were added to the area. 

Third, in 2022, Beijing will become a poster child for the possible future of the Olympics, as the IOC looks for ways to keep the games relevant and sustainable. Gone are the days of choosing a new host every four years, a host that will invest billions of dollars into infrastructure that will never be used again. The Winter Olympics of 2022 will face its own problems, but those problems will be unquestionably smaller than those encountered in 2008. Don’t be surprised if Beijing hosts the summer Olympics again in the next couple of decades.

Altogether, many people argue that the Beijing games ended up having a positive effect on China. Not only was the investment only the slightest blip in the country’s massive economy, but it became an example of China’s growing soft power. It was the country’s way of announcing to the world, “We’ve arrived, and we’re here to stay.”

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