Open Mic: The Real Cost of the 2008 Olympic Games

Heather ParryCorrespondent IAugust 13, 2008

As I sat down to consider this week’s open mic topic – the relevance of the USA/China rivalry at the Beijing Olympic games – something unusual stirred within me.


It’s the same something that didn’t let me watch the opening ceremony, and has me reaching for the remote every time my overenthusiastic parents sit watching the events wide-eyed.


This problem is this: the whole thing seems to be really pissing me off.


Now, let me pre-empt a lot of responses by saying that I can appreciate that there are a lot of socio-economic pros to holding the Olympic games. It’s a very noble tradition, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the athletes involved. They do an amazing job, and deserve all the praise they get.


However, this year something his irked me ever since the media furore started.


It’s not that I have anything against international sporting events per se, but there’s too much about this event that just doesn’t sit right with me.


For a start, I recently learned that a huge part of the Olympic build-up has a rather unsavoury history.


I’m not picking fault with the ancient Greeks here – hell, as an ex-philosophy student I pretty much owe my education to Socrates and those crazy kids.


No, the ‘tradition’ I’m referring to is one that has no roots in ancient Greece, but one which was implemented in 1936 to promote Nazi ideology: the torch relay.


Now, over the past 60 years it’s been widely agreed that Hitler was a Bad Man, and that the vast majority of his beliefs sat steadfastly on the side of damaging, if not totally ridiculous (the notable exception there being vegetarianism, which, as far as we know, doesn’t lead to racial genocide as such).


Why, then, are we still giving the Olympic torch such reverence, when it was started as a way for Adolf to tar classical Greece with his Aryan supremacy brush?


Before the events even begin, then, I’m a little discouraged by the manner in which the world overlooks such a worryingly enduring Nazi symbol. 


Yet my discomfort isn’t assuaged when the torch gets to where it’s going and becomes a less ideologically threatening, non-Nazi fire.


The controversy over the very fact that China is holding the event, despite its rampant and infamous disregard for what the rest of the world considers fundamental human rights, has received enough widespread media attention (from outside of China, if not within) already without me wittering on about it, so I’ll say only this on the subject: I don’t like it.


No, what worries me most about these games is the affect they might be having on the multitudinous ‘normal’ people of China.


Last year, the World Bank estimated that over 300 million people in China, the equivalent of the whole population of the US, still lived at a poverty level that instantly makes us uber-consumers blush with shame – less than a dollar a day. The majority of these poor live not in Beijing, where the bulk of the tourist spending will be this month, but in the vast rural areas of China, hundreds of miles from the rich.


Compare this statistic with the fact that the Beijing Olympics are the most expensive games ever, with $40.9 billion having been spent on the event in the last six years, and you might begin to understand my unease.


“But Heather!” I hear you cry. “The games will boost China’s economy greatly, and so benefit those living in poverty!”


Well, yes, that’s the official line.


However, excuse me for going all David Hume on you, but I’m a little sceptical about that as well.


Having lived for the past three years in Manchester, which in 2002 held the less lucrative yet still profitable Commonwealth Games, I have seen first-hand the hypocrisy that surrounds these kinds of events.


Before those games were held, the main roads into the city centre, which ran through some of the most disadvantaged areas of Manchester, were deemed to give the wrong impression to the international visitors, and so masses of run-down council flats were demolished and replaced by pristine new houses and apartments.


Unfortunately, the price of living in these luxury buildings was far beyond what the previous tenants could afford, and so the poor of Manchester were not saved, but forced to move 100 meters back from the road, where the roughest of council estates still lurked, albeit shielded from the gaze of the rest of the world by brand new breeze-block buildings. The city of Manchester may have benefited hugely from the games, but most of the inhabitants of the city did not.


To my overly-sceptical eyes, it seems likely that the same is true in China right now.


While Beijing is booming, what is being done to help the rural poor?


Perhaps the economic issues surrounding the games are only proving so troublesome to me because the next country set to host the Olympics is my own, and already we’re hearing reports that much-needed funding for a whole range of sports and art groups is being pulled to help the government raise the 63% of the ever-ballooning cost of staging the games that they’ve pledged to give.


When even Boris Johnson, the unbelievably-elected nitwit mayor of London, is voicing his concerns that the 2012 games will have “no lasting value” for the country, you know that something isn’t quite right with the Olympic set-up.


Of course, if anyone in the Chinese government is having the same doubts about the 2008 events, we wouldn’t get to hear about it.


When even the police and spectators at the event are being ordered to smile more for the benefit of the world’s media, what hope do we have of being given an clear and unbiased report of what the Chinese people really think about the Olympics?


So, I’m sorry, but through all the hype surrounding the USA/China rivalry, and despite the fact that I should be supporting the ever-failing British athletes with all my might, all I can think of when I watch the Olympic games this week is the Nazi history, the overarching hypocrisy, and the massive price tag.


Sure, it’s a spectacular event, but at what cost?