The white elephants of Beijing?

The Bird's Nest and Water Cube were iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics. But three years on, and with London's legacy in mind, Paul Newman pays a visit to see how they are used now... and to meet Mickey Mouse

Paul Newman
Sunday 30 October 2011 23:48 GMT

Unfortunately there were no timekeepers available to confirm the feat, but it felt like my time might have bettered the 100m world record Usain Bolt had set on the very same track to win Olympic gold three years earlier. Just as unfortunately, a photographer was on hand to record the fact that my time owed everything to the motorised Segway transporter on which I had been flying around the Bird's Nest stadium, the iconic venue for the 2008 Beijing Games.

As London ponders the post-Olympic future of its own main stadium for next year's Games, following the collapse of the deal for West Ham United to become permanent tenants, might Beijing's example offer a solution? The Segway rides around the track in the Bird's Nest are one of the ways in which Beijing has turned its main Olympic sites into tourist attractions – at the same time as keeping the sporting facilities in place for future major events.

"When people came to Beijing they would originally visit the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City first, but now the Olympic complex is their first choice," Xu Jicheng, who was deputy director of the media operations department at the 2008 Games, said. "About 40,000 people visited the Olympic complex every day last year."

It is almost as if time has stood still. The Olympic rings on the track in the Bird's Nest are fading fast, but in other respects the arena looks much as it did when Bolt stunned the sporting world with his sprinting feats. Just a few hundred yards away at the Water Cube aquatic venue, the main competition pool has not changed in appearance since Michael Phelps rewrote the Olympic record books by winning eight gold medals at a single Games.

For 50 yuan (about £5) you can enter the Bird's Nest and walk all around the cavernous stadium. You can sit in trackside seats, survey the whole scene from the giddy heights at the top of the stadium and even take pictures from the photographers' stand at the end of the 100m straight.

Music from the 2008 Games is piped around the stadium and a big screen shows highlights of the action from three years ago. To get on to the track itself you need to pay an additional 150 yuan, which will give you 20 minutes to motor around the circuit on a Segway.

Behind the scenes there are exhibits of some of the props used in the opening ceremony and, bizarrely, a museum of waxwork models of former presidents of the International Olympic Committee. For an extra 10 yuan you can have your photograph taken sitting next to a statue of Juan Antonio Samaranch, perhaps the most influential of all IOC grandees.

Over at the Water Cube an entry fee of just 30 yuan enables members of the public to sit and gaze reverentially at the eerily quiet competition swimming and diving pools, where the flags of competing nations still hang from the sides of the arena and the walls remain adorned by the colourful signage that helped to brand the 2008 Games.

For an extra 180 yuan you can visit the water park that has been constructed inside the Water Cube, on the other side of a central concourse separating it from the competition pools. An organisation called the World Waterpark Association, a sign informs you, awarded the Water Cube its 2010 "Industry Innovation Award" for its conversion job, though the new park does not look very different to the facilities you might find at a Butlin's resort in Bognor Regis or Skegness.

All around the Olympic complex local photographers spring forward, offering to take a picture to prove that you were actually here. Outside the Water Cube someone in a Mickey Mouse costume poses for photographs with children, a scene it would have been hard to imagine here 20 years ago. Another mascot poses for photographs and then reaches into his pocket for money, suggesting the parents might like to pay him for his services.

The Beijing municipal authorities, who took over the Bird's Nest and Water Cube after the Games, are clearly doing their best to ensure that the iconic sites of 2008 do not become white elephants, but you cannot help wondering how long the tourist attraction idea will last. By mid-morning on a fine October Saturday there were significantly more staff than visitors in a largely deserted Bird's Nest – in the waxworks museum there were five officials and no visitors while on the track there were barely half a dozen Segway riders – and the Water Cube was similarly quiet.

Both sites will continue to host national and international competitions – for example the 2015 world athletics championships will be held here – but the Bird's Nest in particular is not exactly overused. It has staged pre-season football matches for European teams (Birmingham City were among those who played there last summer), the start and finish of marathons and even company sports days.

In the winter the Bird's Nest is transformed into a "winter wonderland", with mounds of artificial snow creating mini ski slopes for the Beijing public to enjoy. However, hopes that the stadium might become the permanent home for the city's Beijing Guoan football club came to nothing – perhaps a warning sign for West Ham – and the stadium is said to need to bring in £12m a year just to cover debt and maintenance costs.

Nevertheless, nearly all the other stadiums built for 2008 have been put to good use. Several were built on university campuses and have now become a hub for the students' sporting and cultural activities.

Beijing has clearly benefited from the vision of the former Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who said on China's readmission to the Olympic family in 1979 that the country would eventually bid to stage the Games.

With that goal in mind, Deng decreed that the land on which the main stadiums for 2008 were eventually constructed should be earmarked for a possible future Olympic Games and should not be built upon in the meantime. At the time the site was on the edge of the capital; Beijing's subsequent rapid expansion meant that the 2008 Games were staged well within the city, which was a key factor in their success.

Xu said the main Olympic site – comprising sporting facilities, former venues, hotels, shops and offices – was now proving a commercial success, while the people of Beijing are grateful for the sporting legacy left by 2008.

"Before the Olympics sports facilities here were not very good," Xu said. "The Olympics was a chance for us to catch up with the rest of the world. Now that we have world-class facilities, we can expect to hold world-class events on a regular basis. It has also helped to promote sport as a healthy activity, as something for ordinary people to take part in.

"A survey was done after the Olympics and at least one third of the public in Beijing said that they now play more sport than they used to, whether it's basketball, badminton, athletics, swimming, shooting, archery or even dragon-boat racing. More parents send their kids to play football, gymnastics or basketball. Before the Olympics I played basketball on Mondays and Fridays. Now I could play every day of the week thanks to the new arenas that have been built."

Dragon-boat racing, anyone? How the new venues built for 2008 Games are used today

National Stadium (Bird's Nest) Has hosted pre-season football matches for European teams and the start and finish of marathons. Becomes a snow park in winter and also attracts tourist visitors.

National Indoor Stadium Was used for gymnastics, trampolining and handball and is now the Beijing Performance and Arts Centre.

Wukesong Basketball Arena Renamed MasterCard Centre and still used for some basketball matches but is also major venue for concerts and exhibitions, with more than 100 events set to be staged there next year.

Olympic Green Tennis Centre Stages annual China Open and other tennis competitions. An additional 15,000-seat tennis stadium has been built there since the Games.

Laoshan Velodrome The scene of British triumphs in 2008 for the likes of Sir Chris Hoy is a base for Chinese riders and regularly hosts domestic and international competitions.

Shunyi Rowing and Canoeing Park Recreational facility and a base for rowing clubs and dragon-boat racing.

China Agricultural University Gymnasium Staged wrestling in 2008 and now used by university for a wide variety of indoor sports.

Science and Technology University Gymnasium Venue for judo and tae kwon do is still used for sport but is also an entertainment venue.

National Aquatics Centre (Water Cube) The scene of golden glory for Rebecca Adlington has been partly converted into a water park for use by the public, while tourists also visit.

University of Technology Gymnasium Still used for badminton; also a multi-purpose sports facility.

Peking University Gym Table tennis venue is used for several sports and as an entertainment centre.

Shijingshan Shooting Range Used by professional and amateur shooting clubs and stages domestic and international competitions.

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