Swimming: More stadiums than sports in China

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They are attractively designed, expensively built and brand new. But while Shanghai's world swimming championships venues are undeniably impressive, there are very real fears about their future use.

Because the gleaming stadiums, on a prime spot near the Huangpu River, are in danger of joining China's growing collection of top-quality venues that have everything except one key ingredient: sports.

Shanghai, the southeastern megalopolis with a population three times bigger than Greater London's, already has one of China's most notoriously under-used venues in its Formula One race-track.

Elsewhere on its gritty outskirts stands the Qi Zhong Stadium, a cavernous, flower-inspired venue with a retractable roof built to accommodate once-yearly ATP tennis tournaments.

In Beijing, the avant-garde Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, which three years ago announced the arrival of newly rich China to a world audience, has fallen into disuse, along with a series of Games venues.

Now questions are being asked about the new Oriental Sports Centre, with its Crescent Lagoon diving pool, 18,000-seat Sea Crown main arena and giant Magnolia Span natatorium, plus a tall administrative block.

Shanghai officials say the facilities, set on a sweeping, landscaped site complete with leaping fountains, will be opened to the public, providing a rare place to swim.

However, only one event - the world short track speed-skating championships next year - was mentioned by officials for the main stadium, whose temporary pool will be removed after the swimming competition.

"After the conclusion of these championships the stadium facilities are ready to be (used)," said Li Yuyi, director general of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Sports.

"By the end of this year the people in Shanghai will be able to enjoy sporting events that originally could only be hosted in the northern part of China like short-track speed skating.

"When the championships are over this venue is going to be open for free for about a month until the beginning of September to the general public by issuing tickets for them to have exercise inside."

Despite the mushrooming of top-level stadiums in many cities, China's domestic sports scene is very much a work in progress, led by basketball and the corruption-hit football league.

This often leaves the new venues competing for a small pool of international events which may come just once a year, or even once in a lifetime.

Guangzhou, near the Hong Kong border, jumped on board last year when it hosted the two-week Asian Games at vast expense, unveiling about a dozen new or refurbished venues including a cricket stadium and a velodrome.

Kerry Brown, a London-based former diplomat and China expert, says grandiose building projects often raise the suspicion of corruption in a country with a dreadful track record for back-handers and dodgy deals.

"I suppose it would be naive of us to think that there wasn't a lot of rottenness about the whole thing," Brown told AFP, commenting on the stadium building spree.

"The issue of corruption never really goes away. For these type of projects it's particularly intense because of the size of them and the amount of money people can earn," Brown said.

"The problem is you've got a systemic problem with officials who are probably on a couple of thousand dollars a month deciding projects worth billions. So it's an absolute disaster really."

Brown notes that Shanghai's motor-racing track, a money pit that struggles to attract visitors even during its annual Formula One grand prix, was closely linked to a massive graft scandal that took down senior officials in 2006.

In 2008, Niu Weiping, president of the influential Shanghai Oriental Pearl (Group) Co., admitted no stadium in China had ever turned a profit.

But Brown said the trend for new stadiums would probably spread to competing provinces, with the second-tier cities of Chongqing, Kunming and Xian likely to bid for big events and show their wealth by building flashy facilities.

"The central government really likes these big, symbolic architectural gestures," Brown said. "Beijing the city has just been completely remade over the last 60 years.

"These big sports stadiums are part of that story really, they are part of rebuilding the city. They have a real like for these big, modern statements."

Brown said China's building projects could be equated with 1980s Paris, where a series of controversial structures have now become a celebrated part of the landscape.

But he said there was unlikely to be much strategy for use of the sports stadiums beyond putting on a good show and demonstrating wealth and largess to the outside world.

"I don't think it's a strategy. Maybe there's some wonderful strategy to do something with the Olympic venues but you go there now and they're sort of redundant and ghostly," said Brown.

"If the Chinese economy falls they would probably be a symbol of the leadership at the time," he added.