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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 November 2006, 16:38 GMT
Olympic Games the Chinese way
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Beijing

The National Stadium under construction in Beijing, China
Construction of the Olympic sites is on schedule
With two years to go until the Beijing Olympics the Chinese government says its preparations are on schedule and on budget.

So as London prepares to hold the Olympics in 2012 what can it learn from the Beijing experience?

A few months ago I had the interesting, and revealing, experience of sitting in on a meeting between London mayor Ken Livingstone, Lord Sebastian Coe, and some of the officials charged with preparing Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

Ken and Seb had come to Beijing to see what they could learn from the "Beijing Experience". Beijing's Olympic programme is ahead of schedule, and, unlike London, on budget. Or so we were told by the Chinese side.

So, in theory, there should have been a lot to learn.

For about 20 minutes the Chinese side impressed their guests with slick presentations, and a deluge of facts and figures; everything from the number of trees being planted, to the treatment of Olympic sewage.

The presentation complete, the group of Chinese officials sat back smiling, confident that the foreigners had been suitably impressed. But Ken and Seb clearly hadn't read the script.

Floundering officials

Lord Coe immediately launched into a string of questions: "How would the facilities be used after the Olympics? What percentage of energy used during the Olympics will come from renewable sources? How would the Chinese achieve their aim of making the Olympics carbon-neutral?"

A look of panic came over the officials faces. Why were these foreigners asking questions? Hadn't they been listening to the carefully prepared presentation?

For a few minutes the officials floundered and waffled, before the meeting was brought to a swift close.

For Seb and Ken it was lesson number one in Chinese bureaucrat-dom, official information is there to be consumed, not questioned.

Chairman of London's Olympic Organising Committee and former Olympic champion Sebastian Coe gives a lesson to students in Beijing
Seb Coe has travelled to China to support London's bid

I suspect the unlikely pair from London probably went home having been tremendously impressed by what they saw. But whether they learned anything useful from their Beijing sojourn is another question entirely.

Beijing's Olympic preparations are nothing if not impressive. The stadiums are breathtaking. And nearly two years before the Beijing Games open, most of them are close to completion.

The main stadium is an outrageous ensemble of woven steel beams. It's unlike anything built before. It's supposed to resemble a giant bird's nest, but to me it looks like something that's just descended from another planet.

20bn cost

That China has chosen to build such spectacular facilities is deliberate. The Beijing Olympics will be China's coming out party - a symbol of this ancient country's resurgence, of it once more taking its rightful place as one of the world's great powers. Cost is not an issue.

Officially China is spending around 20bn on the Olympics. It's not just building stadiums; it's building a new subway system, new highways, a new airport, even a new sewage system. The Chinese capital is being re-made for the Olympics.

Beijing's Olympic preparations differ from London in other fundamental ways. The biggest is political.

This week the government in Britain has faced a barrage of criticism over the ballooning costs of the 2012 Games. Beijing's mayor faces no such problems. For a start he doesn't have to worry about angry voters at election time; he's not elected.

Beijing 2008
China is determined the Olympic Games will pass off smoothly

Unlike Londoners, who are having to foot the bill for the Olympics, Beijingers are sharing the costs with the rest of their 1.3 billion brethren. Not surprisingly you'll go a long way in the Chinese capital to find anyone against building the new facilities.

But ask a non-Beijinger, and you may get a different answer.

When my children were small we employed a nanny from a poor province on the boarders of Mongolia. One day I asked her whether she felt proud that the Olympics were coming to China.

"In my home town there are children who can't afford books for school" she told me.

"Some can't even afford warm clothing for the winter, or to go to the doctor when they are ill. All this money being spent on the Olympics. For what? For the greater glory of the Communist Party!"

Doubling airport's size

China still has 40 million people living below the poverty line. Hundreds of millions live in fear of getting ill because there is no national health care system.

But then China's communist rulers don't have to answer to parliament, or the public. And that makes running an Olympic games a lot easier.

Take the example of Beijing's international airport. To cope with the extra Olympic visitors, it's being doubled in size, with a vast new terminal building and third runway, in a design by Lord Norman Foster.

Pupils at a Beijing secondary school
China's youngsters are preparing for their nation's big moment

But while in London, Heathrow airport's new terminal five started life somewhere back in the mid 1990s, and still isn't finished, Beijing's new space-age terminal three only broke ground in early 2005.

By the end of next year it will be complete. It's also about twice the size of the Heathrow building, and includes a new runway, railway link, and new motorway.

To make way for all this, three villages and thousands of villagers had to be moved.

In Britain this would represent a huge legal and financial obstacle. Not in China.

Cost of construction

Within weeks of the go ahead, the bulldozers had moved in and the villages were gone. And what of the years of public enquiries that have held up Heathrow's new terminal? Again, no such problems in China.

Then take a look at the cost of construction in China. The price of steel and cement may be similar to the UK. But the price of workers is not.

In Beijing they can throw tens of thousands of workers at the Olympic construction projects, and run the sites 24 hours a day seven days a week, without making a huge impact on the cost.

Perhaps the real answer to Ken and Seb's woes is to import some Chinese construction workers to help build London's Olympic stadium.


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