China's Post-Olympic Woe: How To Fill An Empty Nest

Jul 10, 2012
Originally published on July 10, 2012 10:31 pm

As the opening date for the London Olympics nears, Beijing's acclaimed Olympic venues are saddled with high maintenance costs and are struggling to get by. And the most famous, the Bird's Nest stadium, has been repudiated by its own creator, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Even the state-run government mouthpiece, the China Daily, worries that Beijing's iconic structures risk becoming "white elephants."

To the bang of drums and the roar of the crowds, Beijing's 2008 Olympics opened with a boom. The spectacular opening ceremony was fitting for the spectacular Bird's Nest. Girdled with strips of concrete, it was an ambitious structure for a new superpower.

But four years on, the Bird's Nest is looking tired and empty.

A 'Kind Of Dirty' Construction Zone

These days, a smattering of mostly Chinese tour groups trickles though the stadium. Visitor numbers are in free fall: They plummeted by half in the first six months of 2011 compared with a year before, according to state-run media. The Bird's Nest cost $480 million to build, and its upkeep costs $11 million a year.

But the only international visitors sitting in the stands on a recent day aren't impressed.

"For me, it's just a huge concrete place," says German tourist Christian Lodz. "Personally I think, after four years, it looks a little bit shabby."

"What I think is interesting is that it's just not used for anything useful," says his countryman Henne Zelle, waving at a crane and tarpaulins in the middle of the stadium. "There's a construction zone there, and it's kind of dirty."

The problem is how to fill the empty expanse of seats; the stadium is designed to house 91,000 spectators.

Since the Olympics, a number of tactics have been tried: The construction of man-made ski slopes turned it temporarily into a winter wonderland, and tightrope walker Adili Wuxor spent two months living suspended on a tightrope above the Bird's Nest trying to set a new world record.

It's a far cry from the world record set by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who set the mark for the 100 meters and the 200 meters in the packed Bird's Nest. Now, tourists wobble around the same track on Segways, which they hire for just over $20 for 15 minutes.

There's even a small waxworks museum, exhibiting figurines of all the past and present presidents of the International Olympic Committee. When he called Beijing's Olympic venues "beautiful" and "unprecedented," current IOC President Jacques Rogge can hardly have known he would be immortalized in wax inside one of those venues, always photo-ready, should the visitor be willing to part with $1.50 for the privilege.

But the long-term future of the stadium is unclear. The Beijing soccer team, Guo'an, shied away from making it their home, perhaps wary of the costs. There are few events that can fill enough seats.

This summer, the stadium stands unused — except as a tourist destination — for three months, from the end of an equestrian show in May until its next engagement, a soccer match between British teams Arsenal and Manchester City at the end of July.

Cube's Qualified Success Story

The Beijing National Aquatics Center, on the other hand, has found an afterlife. Known as the Water Cube, the translucent color-shifting building, where the swimming events were held, is the only Beijing Olympic venue that was financed by public donations, in this case by 350,000 overseas Chinese.

Now, one part of it has been turned into a water park, where swimmers shoot down colorful tubes into the pools of water. It's even launched a line of branded goods, including Water Cube alcohol, which sells at a cool $150 a bottle.

But still, turning a profit isn't easy.

"It's extremely, extremely difficult not to lose money," Yang Qiyong, the Water Cube's deputy manager, says with a frank laugh.

He angrily denies state-run media reports that the facility lost $1.5 million last year. But according to the state-run Global Times, Yang says the Water Cube attracted nearly 2.1 million visitors in 2011, 30 percent fewer compared with the year before.

"Although we put in a lot of effort, the trend of diminishing numbers can't be reversed," he says.

Yang says the Water Cube narrowly broke even last year, though it required $1.5 million in government subsidies.

"Without that money, we couldn't hold important sports events. Some international competitions clearly lose lots of money. But in order to maintain our venue's image, we must host them," Yang says.

And it's all about image.

"It really is worth it," Yang says. "Regardless of whether you're talking about Beijingers or Chinese people, we needed a landmark venue, a place whose image is beautiful."

China's Pride Or Propaganda?

Chinese tourist Wang Xiaoyu feels the same way, as he stands inside the Bird's Nest for the first time.

"I'm proud that China has this great architecture, that it can build such a great world monument. How can you not feel proud?" he asks, beaming from ear to ear.

The official audio tour describes the stadium in these symbolic terms: "The Bird's Nest, as a symbol of the rise of the Chinese nation, will follow the nation's footsteps in its rise to glory."

But the Chinese artist who helped conceive of the Bird's Nest now says he regrets having designed such a monument to China's Communist leaders.

Ai Weiwei designed the stadium, together with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. But Ai has never set foot inside the finished building.

He told NPR that the stadium has become entirely divorced from ordinary people.

"We love this building, but we don't like the content they have put in, the kind of propaganda. They dissociated this building [from] citizens' celebration or happiness; [it's] not integrated with the city's life," Ai said. "So I told them I will never go to this building."

The triumphant music pumped out into the Bird's Nest over video of cheering crowds now falls into a vacuum. It was designed as a stage for China's coming-out party, to send a message to the world. But in this land of government-backed vanity projects, this empty, echoing stadium now sends a very different message.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The London Olympics open later this month, at last, and with the games come new architecture - a stadium, an aquatic center and other structures. Four years ago, Beijing was showing off its new Olympic venues, but now the government is saddled with high maintenance costs. And the most famous facility, the Bird's Nest Stadium, has been repudiated by its designer. NPR's Lisa Lim reports on how Beijing's iconic structures risk becoming white elephants.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: To the bang of drums and the roar of the crowd, Beijing's Olympics opened with a boom. The spectacular opening ceremony was fitting for the spectacular Bird's Nest Stadium. Girdled with strips of concrete, it was an ambitious structure for a new superpower. But four years on, the Bird's Nest is looking tired and empty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Today, a smattering of mostly Chinese tour groups trickles though the stadium. Visitor numbers are in freefall, plummeting by half, year on year. The Bird's Nest cost $480 million to build and its upkeep costs $11 million a year.

Resting in the stands, Christian Lodz and Henne Zelle from Germany aren't too impressed.

CHRISTIAN LODZ: For me, it's just a huge concrete place. Personally I think, after four years, it looks a little bit shabby, I guess.

HENNE ZELLE: What I think is interesting is that it's just not used for anything useful. I mean, there's like a construction zone there, and it looks kind of dirty.

LIM: I'm now sitting in the stands looking at this endless expanse of empty seats - 91,000 of them to be exact. And that's the real problem: What to do with this iconic structure.

Since the Olympics, they've tried all kinds of things. These include using fake snow and man-made ski slopes in winter to turn it into a winter wonderland and even having a tightrope walker who spent two months living on a tightrope suspended above the Bird's Nest to make a world record.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Usain Bolt, sprinting ahead, winning by daylight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And setting a world record.

LIM: I'm now whizzing around the very track where Usain Bolt won his gold medal for the 100 meters. But I'm not on foot. I'm actually using a Segway, one of those weird two-wheeled vehicles. And this is one of the money making schemes that's being tried out at the Bird's Nest. For just over $20 for 15 minutes, tourists can whizz around the track on Segways. It's quite good fun, I have to say, but not many people are dong it and I'm not quite sure how to stop.

It's a bit different at the Water Cube where the swimming events were held. This has found a post-Olympic afterlife. It's been turned into a water park, where swimmers shoot down colorful tubes into pools of water. It's even launched a line of branded goods, including Water Cube alcohol, which sells at a cool $150 a bottle. But still, turning a profit isn't easy.

YANG QIYONG: (Through translator) It's extremely, extremely difficult not to lose money.

LIM: That's Yang Qiyong, the deputy manager of the Water Cube. He says it breaks even - just - but needs big government subsidies.

QIYONG: (Through translator) The government gave us subsidies of $1.5 million U.S. last year. Without that money, we couldn't hold important sports events. Some international competitions clearly lose lots of money. But in order to maintain our venue's image, we must host them.

LIM: And it's all about image.

WANG XIAOYU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: To Chinese visitors to the Bird's Nest, like Wang Xiaoyu, these buildings prove that China can hold its own, architecturally. How can you not feel proud, he says, beaming from ear to ear.

Even the audio tour sees the stadium in symbolic terms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Bird's Nest, as a symbol of the rise of the Chinese nation, will follow the nation's footsteps in its rise to glory.

LIM: But the Chinese artist who helped conceive of the Bird's Nest says he regrets having designed such a monument to China's Communist leaders. Ai Weiwei has never set foot inside the finished building. He told NPR the stadium has become entirely divorced from ordinary people.

AI WEIWEI: We love this building, but we don't like the content they have put in, you know, the kind of propaganda. They dissociated this building with citizens' celebration or happiness. It's not integrated with the city's life. So I told them I will never go to this building.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: The triumphant music pumped out into the Bird's Nest over video of cheering crowds, now falls into a vacuum. It was designed as a stage for China's coming-out party, to send a message to the world. But in this land of government-backed vanity projects, the empty, echoing stadium now sends a very different message.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.