Olympic goldmedals, cheap!" calls a woman outside Beijing's National Stadium. "Goldmedals, buy one now!" The freelance vendor does not stock phony silvers orbronzes. "After all," she says, "people only want a champion'smemory." ¬∂ Which is one reason some 20,000 visitors—mostly Chinese fromoutside the capital—arrive daily at the Bird's Nest, the $450 million icon ofthe 2008 Summer Games that has joined the Great Wall and the Forbidden City asnational symbols. Like those imperial structures, the Bird's Nest is without apractical purpose today, hosting not a home team but a handful of pop concertsand the many tourists who pay 50 yuan ($7.33) to picnic in the stands and posefor photographs on a mock medal stand. ¬∂ The state-owned investment companythat manages the Bird's Nest has added an amusement park to a corner of thesprawling Olympic Green complex that surrounds the stadium, but on a searingJune afternoon few visitors venture from the shade of the structure'sdistinctive steel ribbons, now flecked with scabs of rust and coated in dust.Tourists this day enter the stadium to watch barren flagpoles, the unlitcauldron and an empty field. The scoreboard flashes clips of Jamaican sprinterUsain Bolt lunging across the finish line, and fireworks blooming along thecapital's imperial axis, and the pigtailed nine-year-old singing Ode to theMotherland during the opening ceremonies.
This is an article from the Aug. 3, 2009 issue
Only one of theseimages was real—the pyrotechnics were partially rendered digitally and the girllip-synched the song—but authenticity can be illusory in Beijing: Just look atthe scores of knockoffs for sale around town to complement those fake goldmedals. Even the author of its Olympic bid slogan, New Beijing, Great Olympics,laments that it was invoked to destroy the city's traditional fabric. "By'New Beijing,' I meant we want to have a new humanism in Beijing," said LiXiguang, a journalism professor at Tsinghua University, before the Games."But the local officials and planners took this slogan literally. Theythink 'New Beijing' means destroy old Beijing."
New Beijing, acity of 17 million equal in area to Connecticut, looks bigger, wider, flatter,more, since the Games ended. But the 4.4-square-mile Green, once home to theBird's Nest, the Water Cube and eight other Olympic venues, feels deserted.Crosswalk signals flash red over empty, four-lane roads. A refuse collectorpokes into a receptacle marked RECYCLABLE. Beijing has a burgeoning recyclingindustry; nearly everything gets reused. The woman examines my mineral-waterbottle and replica gold medal. Only one has any value to her. She takes thebottle.
What is thelegacy of the Beijing Olympics? Western perceptions of China tend to planttheir standards at the poles of enchantment and apprehension: Witness thereaction to the opening ceremonies, during which many viewers' impressions slidalong a continuum of awe at the sight of thousands of drummers and flyingsylphs to the uneasy realization that a production of that scale is onlypossible in a nation with an enormous population and resources, and agovernment powerful enough to mobilize them. If they can do this, what can'tthey do?
The performancesof Chinese athletes during the Games confirmed the country's formidability.Shortly after Beijing was awarded the Olympics, in 2001, China devised Project119—an initiative named for the number of gold medals awarded (only one to aChinese athlete) at the 2000 Games in track and field, swimming, rowing,sailing, and canoeing and kayaking. The plan was to boost the country to thetop of the medal standings. China finished with its highest total ever, 100medals, 51 of them gold (sidebar, page 70). Only the U.S. won more, 110 total,though just 36 were gold.
Yet despite theBeijing Olympics' spectacle and success—officials claimed the Games made a $146million profit—the capital is feeling the hangover that comes after hosting theworld's biggest-ever coming-out party. Beijing is learning, as host cities havein the past, that the Games' influence is often extinguished with the torch.(The hangover was not soothed, of course, by the simultaneous near collapse ofthe world's economy.) A year after the Olympics, Beijing residents still cannotdrink the tap water, or surf an unfiltered Internet, or exercise in safeair.
China remains adeveloping country, and the Olympics were one of a series of events intended togalvanize economic, social and environmental reforms: Hong Kong's and Macau'sreturns to "the motherland" in 1997 and 1999, respectively; China'sentry into the World Trade Organization in 2001; and the 2008 Games. Residentsexperienced these events with the resigned relief one feels after planning afestive meal, when at last everyone is seated and enjoying themselves—thoughfar more than the host, who has little chance to savor the food. In Beijing theclock facing Tiananmen Square that once ticked down to the opening ceremonieshas been reset, showing the days that remain before the start of Shanghai'sWorld Expo, in May 2010.
I returned toBeijing nine months after the closing ceremonies to visit Qianmen (Front Gate),one of the city's most venerable neighborhoods made up of narrowlanes—hutong—lined by dilapidated courtyard homes. I lived and taught Englishin that area just south of Tiananmen Square, for three years during the buildupto the Games. It was a place where changes were felt personally: a subway lineconstructed, a park added, a community dismantled.
Beginning in 2005the school where I volunteered, Coal Lane Elementary, was ordered, like allBeijing schools, to begin the first class of the day by updating how many daysremained before the opening ceremonies. After a month of diligently keepingcount, interest floundered. In my homeroom of fourth-graders, even as thestudents were reciting essays about Pierre de Coubertin, singing dittiesdressed as the Games' furry Fuwa mascots and swearing oaths not to spit infront of foreign guests, we stopped updating the chalkboard with 996 days togo.
It was a pleasantillusion. There were no clocks on the classroom walls, and the view out thewindows looked timeless, with scalloped waves of gray tiled rooftops washingtoward the school. The wider view, however, revealed that we lived on anever-shrinking island. Modern office towers and apartments built atop destroyedhutong squeezed our neighborhood from all sides. So did modern culture. Most ofthe hutong homes did not have central heat or toilets yet were wired forbroadband. My students could not identify the Great Hall of the People orChairman Mao's mausoleum, but when I pointed to the golden arches rising in thedistance, they shouted, "Maidanglao!"—McDonald's! By the end of theschool year, we could see a Wal-Mart too.
The posterscommanding BUILD A NEW BEIJING TO WELCOME A NEW OLYMPICS soon appeared in thelanes; then, one spring night in 2008, an unseen specter daubed the courtyard'sgray brick walls with the ghostly white character that means raze. But a yearlater the lanes still stand.
The redevelopmentof our neighborhood has been tabled for lack of funds. At her courtyard home,as her father's pet pigeons flap in circles overhead, my former student LittleLiu, now 12, teaches me the Chinese term for "global economiccrisis."
Little Liu onceanticipated the Beijing Games the way I used to Christmas Eve, but now theevent feels very far away to her. "The Olympics showed foreign countriesthat China is a friendly and developed country," she says in English."But now it's over." She shrugs and switches to Mandarin. "All theactivities about the Olympics at school have been replaced by ones aboutpsychological health, like 'Don't snatch purses' or 'Don't cheat peopleonline.' And the posters with the Olympics slogan One World, One Dream werechanged to ones praising our neighborhood's 800-year-old history andculture."
I cannot confirmthese replacements firsthand; fears that foreigners might carry swine flu meantthat I was forbidden to enter the grounds of the school where I taught forthree years.
Architecture inBeijing is as recyclable as my water bottle. Former Buddhist temples houseschools; old air-raid shelters become underground museums; a neighborhoodpartly demolished to make way for a straightened road gets bulldozed again toadd a subway. And so it follows that at the Olympic Green, the NationalAquatics Center—the Water Cube—is as much store as swimming pool.
The warmup poolat the Cube recently opened a few days a week for people who pass a healthcheck and can present a "deep water certificate." For 50 yuan thosepeople can swim for up to two hours. It costs only 30 yuan, however, to notswim, to browse counters stocked with Water Cube watches, Water Cube waterwings and Water Cube perfume and rice wine (which smell indistinguishable).
Across thestreet, inside the National Indoor Stadium, site of the gymnastics events, aticket buys access to a darkened, empty arena, bereft of decorations save for aconcourse mural depicting Olympic history that concludes with painted visagesof the Williams sisters and a torch-bearing Yao Ming. A dozen miles to thesouthwest the Olympic basketball arena, constructed for the Games and nowlicensed to NBA China, sits largely unused.
Eight of theGames' 31 venues were temporary: The former baseball diamond is now a mallconstruction site, and mounds of scrap metal occupy the grounds that hostedfield hockey and archery. An hour outside town, visitors can learn to kayak atthe site of Olympic rowing and canoeing. The attraction I arrived eager totry—the whitewater course—sits dry, however. I made do with walking its floor,wishing I had a skateboard.
Still seen onoccasion around Beijing: the blue-and-white polo shirts worn by the 100,000volunteers who staffed the Olympics. In my neighborhood, Li Shuqin often wearshers as she sells fans, socks and other sundries from her flatbedtricycle—parked at the corner of Prolong Life and Tea lanes, beneath paintedcharacters that spell ONE WORLD, ONE DREAM over a slogan from a preceding era:NEVER FORGET CLASS STRUGGLE!
"Ivolunteered every day for three weeks out at the Bird's Nest," Li says inMandarin. "It made me feel connected to the event, to the world." Hercontribution, Li admits, was limited. "Mostly I just smiled atpassersby."
The Olympics'promotion of volunteerism was a change for Beijing. When I arrived in China, asa Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, people felt sorry for me, wondering what sortof nation would send its young people overseas to work with strangers. In therun-up to the Olympics, however, volunteering became a government movement,enlisting students, state employees and retirees—older residents of myneighborhood recruited me to teach them English phrases such as "Beijing isgetting better and better every day."
Volunteerscontinue to man my neighborhood's Olympic information booth, although they arenow paid. "This booth is the responsibility of a city-owned shoefactory," says a staffer, Wang Duojun. "We are volunteers in that weraised our hands when our boss asked, 'Who wants to work outside the office oneday a week?' But I like it. Mostly people just ask what bus route goeswhere." Wang says the Games have not altered daily life in Beijing. Beijinghas moved on.
Over the nexthour six people approach the booth. Five ask about buses. The sixth inquiresabout the health of his favorite NBA player, Jianeite—Kevin Garnett. On a pieceof paper I write strained tendon in English. The questioner walks away,repeating the phrase.
Beijing's Olympiclegacy doesn't compare with that of Seoul, whose 1988 Games cajoled the thenone-party government to allow direct elections and liberalization. No suchdefrosting is taking place in Beijing, where plainclothes police areeverywhere, including outside the studio of Ai Weiwei.
The bearded,portly Ai was chosen by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Mueron to collaborate onthe design of the National Stadium. "The government would never ask me.Never," he says. Ai's father was a famous poet exiled to the country's farwest during the Cultural Revolution, and the 51-year-old Ai forged a career asan avant-garde artist who bristled against the state. After the earthquake inSichuan killed 70,000 people in 2008, Ai began a project on his popular blogthat challenged the reported death toll of children, most of whom perished inschools that were allegedly poorly constructed because of shoddy buildingmaterials and misappropriated funds. Officials shut the blog down, but notuntil Ai's volunteers had posted the names and profiles of more than 5,000victims.
Ai points acrossthe street to a poplar. "When the road was widened, trees were cut down.One day I found a magpie's nest sitting on the ground. I was really worriedabout the unhatched eggs in it, so I carried it inside here and then placed itin that tree. But of course, the mother never returned to the nest. I hadruined it." The magpie's nest was not the origin of his stadium design, Aisays, but the story illustrates what followed its completion. "I wasn'tinvited to the opening ceremonies, and I wouldn't have gone," he says."I have disassociated myself from every act associated with the state. Lookat this city now; the empty new buildings along Qianmen are the latest exampleof officials and developers shamelessly chasing profit and moreprofit."
I fish anofficial Bird's Nest key chain from my pocket, one of the hundreds of trinketsbranded with his design on sale at the stadium. "I've never been insideit," Ai says. "I love the building. I'm Chinese, after all, and it'sgood for China. Maybe young kids can see there is such a thing as gracefuldesign, that it's O.K. to have dreams, that they can come true." Ai fingersthe key chain and shakes his head. "But for now, my name is permanentlyassociated with the country's biggest propaganda item."
MICHAEL MEYER ISTHE AUTHOR OF The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreetsof a City Transformed.
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For S.L. Price's story about Beijing one year before the Olympics, go toSI.com/vault