Eye on Athens, China stresses a 'frugal' 2008 Olympics

Amid a reevaluation, officials this week pushed the completion date for venues back a year, to 2007.

As Athens breathlessly opens its Summer Games Friday, a continent away the realities of readying and financing the Olympics of 2008 are beginning to sink in.

The Beijing Olympics will be the first ever hosted in image-conscious and sports-crazy China, which pulled out all the stops to get the 2008 Games after a heartbreaking loss to Sydney for 2000. State media here have steadily promised a world-beating Games featuring avant-garde stadium designs and a new transport system - "the best Olympics in history," as lavish propaganda states, at a cost of $20 to $40 billion.

Yet such triumphal tones are now giving way to a more modest depiction of the 2008 enterprise, one that reflects older values of modesty as well as the maddening details of putting together an event that will bring the world to China's door. The new language in Beijing for 2008 stresses a "workable games" and "pragmatism in hosting," and state media now speak of a desire to make 2008 a "good Olympics for the world."

Beijing's mayor Wang Qishan goes further, saying the Beijing games, set to open on Aug. 8, 2008, will be a "frugal Olympics," not one that features too many "luxuries." The comment was part of a reevaluation following a brush with charges that sports officials used money for housing projects and perks, an academic protest over extravagant foreign designs, and problems with cost and coordination. This week, with attention focused on Athens, a new deadline for completion of the sports venues was announced. Only days ago, officials swore the sites would be finished in 2006; now the date is 2007.

In massive stretches of weedy fields outside Beijing's fourth ring road, work has halted on a set of signature venues, including the National Stadium and the "Water Cube" swimming complex.

The stadium in particular, whose unique latticework design of looping exterior steel girders has earned it a fond nickname of "bird's nest," has come under fire. A paper by 10 members of the Chinese Academies of Science and Engineering stated "the outlandish designs overemphasized visual effects." Top party officials responded, reportedly, by insisting that Chinese Olympic authorities not "prefer grandeur and seek foreign styles blindly."

The bird's nest design by Swiss firm Herzog and DeMeuron was accepted after a vote in Beijing. The city's original design specifications required a retractable roof to cover the open center of the "bird's nest" in case of rain or snow. But it now appears that will be scrapped at a savings of $37 to $40 million.

In some ways, the changes may just be a natural mid-course correction.

One former Chinese official, speaking on terms of anonymity, stated that, "It goes against the Chinese tradition of modesty for us to brag about our games and to seek a No. 1 games. We need to ensure the quality of materials is high. That's been the problem in our past. It isn't just the cost. But this plan does cost a lot, and we need to be practical."

In keeping with this philosophy, a huge translucent exterior membrane made of polymer - now planned to enclose the water cube - is under review. So are massive video screens, set to be the world's largest, that would cover all four sides of the basketball complex. Now it appears three of the screens will be dropped, and the fourth one reduced in size, at a savings of $100-million plus.

To be sure, the Beijing games are still designed with plenty of dazzle. If anything, Beijing is running so far ahead of schedule that Olympic officials, by now all too familiar with the seven-year chaos of the Athens games process, offer little but effusively glowing statements about Beijing's approach.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, informed last week about China's planned reevaluation, said he felt confident the changes would "not affect the games."

Beijing secured the 2008 Olympics after a hard-fought competition with Paris and Toronto. For China, snagging the Olympics was not only a matter of prestige but of international respect. No games had ever been held in China, a Security Council member and a rising power in Asia. Some experts felt that had China lost the games of 2008, the blow to national self-image would have been severe. As it was, the victory celebration in Beijing was an epic one - with cars and citizens jamming roads and alleys into the early hours of the morning, something rarely seen.

More important, the victory brought confidence that China would now be able to show the world its efficient central-planning system and its new technocratic class of savvy organizational managers who would put on a world-class games.

For the most part, evidence shows those planners have been working overtime, and many projects are far ahead of schedule. Beijing has spent lavishly on rewiring its power grid, started new food or "grub streets" that will serve Western fare, begun work on 4 of 10 new subway lines, and nearly completed some 200 miles of expressways around town.

Work is also under way to demolish or rebuild some 2,800 hutong-alley public toilets that dot the inner city. It is safe to say the facilities fall short of standards most tourists might expect. The $12 million project envisions 4,700 new restrooms. Police, taxi drivers, and many ordinary people are attending English classes financed by the Olympics committee.

Still, despite continued hopes for private-sector contributions, the financing side of the games remains largely state-run. The principal partners are state-owned enterprises: The Bank of China, Air China, China Mobile, China Netcom. Volkswagen has signed on, however, as has General Electric and McDonald's.

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