Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Empty Olympic dreams, redux

I posted this piece a few months back regarding how tired I was of the Olympics. It was based off a post from the Globe and Mail piece that I'll repeat here:
The history of the Olympics is a history of failures. Every four years, one city is confronted with the world’s largest sporting event, and usually at least one thing goes terribly wrong: Debt, crowding, security threats or bad public image have sent most Olympiads deep into the bronze....
The Australians expected 132,000 visitors for the 2000 Games, and then received only 97,000 tourists during the entire period. That was better than Athens, where organizers expected 105,000 tourists per night and received only 14,000.
But the real troubles in Sydney began after the Games. Australian officials had expected that the Olympics would boost the Sydney “brand,” and overall tourism would nearly quadruple to eight or 10 million people per year in the years after the Olympics. In fact, there was no boost at all: Tourism in Sydney has stayed steady, at about 2.5 million visitors a year even as tourist numbers have risen sharply across the rest of the region.
I compared the end of an Olympic Games to the aftermath of a Gatsby party: all glitz and no memory (coming a theatre near you!).  Not to sound prophetic or anything, but here's a new article from NPR surveys over the remnants Beijing's Bird's Nest.
To the bang of drums and the roar of the crowds, Beijing's 2008 Olympics opened with a boom. The spectacular opening ceremony was fitting for the spectacular Bird's Nest. Girdled with strips of concrete, it was an ambitious structure for a new superpower. But four years on, the Bird's Nest is looking tired and empty.
Apparently no-one likes the stadium anymore, not even its designers:
the Chinese artist who helped conceive of the Bird's Nest now says he regrets having designed such a monument to China's Communist leaders. 
Ai Weiwei designed the stadium, together with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. But Ai has never set foot inside the finished building. 
He told NPR that the stadium has become entirely divorced from ordinary people. 
"We love this building, but we don't like the content they have put in, the kind of propaganda. They dissociated this building [from] citizens' celebration or happiness, [it's] not integrated with the city's life," Ai said. "So I told them I will never go to this building." 
Reading through the list of the government's attempts at recycling the stadium space is sad: man-made ski slopes, Segway rides, and a wax museum of IOC presidents (wtf?). Beijing's soccer team does not want to use it, a familiar story to any Montreal Impact or Alouette fan.

Stadiums are like conference rooms or funeral parlours: you want to go smaller than you think. Make it look crowded. One thousand people in a 90,000 capacity arena is a good as empty; the same number in a 1000-person capacity venue is a sell-out game.

This is the problem I alluded to in that earlier post I wrote, that the Olympic games are meant to be a symbolic gesture. If you try making a symbol larger than life, you defeat its purpose. How can something humongous represent something else gigantic? Makes no sense. They taught us this in high school. It's why Ahab's white whale was just one whale and not a hundred.

Such symbolic simplicity was at the heart of the original Olympic games. The Greeks, many centuries ago, played out their competitions on a grassy knoll. All that is -and was- of their games was a gentle moulding into the steppes. Later the Romans and their eventual decadent period came rolling along and, inspired by the Greeks, tried to outdo their ancestors with a bigger, better uber coliseum. Yet the Romans fell all the same, no doubt precipitated by such hubris. They have their historic appeal now, these mega stadiums. Glad to know our modern mammoth venues will make their money back from tourists in another thousand years.

Coliseums, Pyramids of Giza, Easter Island heads, Great Wall of China, Ryugyong Hotel, Montreal's Big 'Owe'. Let's see if we can figure out, someday perhaps, that those structures who last through the ages are not necessarily our finest creations, but instead just the hardest to get rid of.

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