The Real Cost of the Beijing Olympics
This Friday, in Beijing, begins the 17 days of international competition that countries take years to prepare for. It is easy to carried away with the Olympics. Over ten thousand athletes from two hundred and five countries will compete for the gold in 28 sports. The games will be covered by every major media outlet in the world. NBC alone is planning over 3,600 hours of programming across its sister stations. In every sense of the word, the games will truly be a spectacle. China sees the Olympics as its official arrival unto the international stage and has been busily preparing since it was chosen to host the games in 2001. The Olympics are not often held in developing countries.
The progress in Beijing has been dramatic as China has sought to make bold statement about the progress it has made as a country economically, technologically, and even ecologically. In anticipation of the Olympics, Beijing became a massive construction site. Its stadiums and buildings are an impressive site. A 91,000 seat stadium wrapped in tensile like steel dubbed the bird’s nest and a giant cube of plastic bubbles mimicking water molecules surrounding the Olympic swimming pool are but a couple of examples that have been applauded by the architecture and design community for their design and innovation. Architects have seen in China the chance to try anything: the chance to build the gargantuan and the outlandish, to leave an indelible impression in the history of Architecture, to build modern monuments. It works. The stadiums are well suited to the role of being China’s opportunity to promote its image abroad. But what can you truly say about an architecture that is said to be only able to exist in China, an authoritative state?
Not only did the stadiums and other Olympic venues need to be built, but so did the infrastructure needed to support them. New roads have been constructed and old roads repaved. Sidewalks have been added and so have parks. Flowers raised specially to bloom in August and trees have been planted. Subway and rail lines have been built. New housing has been constructed and the buildings surrounding the Olympic venues and transit routes have been upgraded. Bejing looks now not like a modern city, but a city of the future, at least on the surface. What we may call progress has been made, but at what costs? Financially the cost are tremendous. The costs for the games is expected to top 44 billion dollars. The new stadium cost around $500 million dollars and the new airport over 3 billion. The costs itself is several more times the cost of the 2004 games. And though this is a small portion of China’s national economy, hundreds of millions are still mired in poverty. As spending on the Olympics has increased, social spending has faltered. “Until there is a full, accurate, transparent accounting for the full Olympics expenditures — not just estimates and budgeted figures — you can’t really argue anything about…costs being reasonable,” says Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, based in New York.
The social costs (links to PDF) too have been high. To make room for development, people have been forced from their homes and property often with little or no compensation, not enough to provide for them the life they had worked to accomplish. Evictions have been forced and often violent. The threat of violence, torture, and prison keep most from protesting. Estimates for the amount of displaced people because of the Olympics are estimated to be as high as 1.5 million. What the land is used for often profits those in power. After their homes and property are stolen, they are often demolished to build in their place more profitable developments: luxury high rises, golf courses, and shopping plazas. Those forced off the land often end up meanwhile in shanty towns.
These were to be a green Olympics. The different Olympic venues have made efforts to incorporate some sustainable building practices. China has made an effort to improve its environment. As a response to concerns about the air quality in Beijing, car usage has been limited, steel mills have been retrofitted or shut down, and factories have been relocated. They were needed efforts, if done for perhaps the wrong reasons. The scale of China’s ecological problems are huge, and exist far outside of Beijing. The majority of its rivers are polluted making potable water inaccessible to nearly half of the population. And since Beijing was awarded the Olympic games, birth defects, which many have linked to the pollution in China, have increased 40 percent. Together, it seems like a very steep price for just 17 days of the Olympic games.
Additional Information: What will China do for the Gold?