London vs. Beijing: The Pregames

Though the spectacle has been underwhelming, London may have an edge over the Chinese capital in long-term planning.

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Luke Macgregor / Reuters

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Move over Beijing, London’s games are going to blow yours out of the water. That’s the (slightly amplified) gist of comments made by Britain’s Sport Minister over the weekend. According to Jeremy Hunt, the London 2012 Olympics will be better than Beijing’s previous effort because while the 2008 Olympics "played to China’s strength’s … London is one of the great global cities and this is our chance to showcase that to the whole world."

Believing a small offshore European satellite can best the world’s most important emerging power takes some guts, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. With just four days before the opening ceremony, it’s worth looking at how London has matched up to its Chinese predecessor so far.

When it comes to creating memorable buildings, Beijing has already won hands down. Even now, it’s hard to suppress an “ooh” when looking at photos of its Bird’s Nest Stadium. Over in London, the artfully mangled Orbit Tower next door to the new stadium is at least eye-catching, but the main building itself looks like it came out of a flat pack last week. It appears cheap and provisional, but at a cost of £486 million, isn’t really anything of the sort.

Architecture aside, it will be hard for London to match the confidence and sheer spectacle of Chinese effort in other areas. The massed dancers and jaw-slackening fireworks of Beijing’s opening ceremony gave out the ringing, unambiguous message that Beijing’s and China’s time had truly come. London’s status as a world city may be almost peerless, but it doesn’t have quite the same powerful message to give – the city’s success is neither newly minted nor, given Britain’s recession, unassailable. With the city at no particular turning point, its cultural message is a bit more diffuse. Instead of celebrating the extreme dexterity and mass coordination of Beijing’s performers, it looks like London’s opening ceremony will offer a peculiarly local mix of historical nostalgia, self deprecation and mild irreverence. It will be interesting for locals to see whether non-Britons find this approach unreadable and smug, or lively and refreshing.

Neither city can be said to have excelled in their pre-Games run-up. The image of Beijing’s Olympics was tarnished by the rigid suppression and arrest of dissident voices, the strict control of international media and the summary destruction of historic city buildings. While not nearly so bad, London’s installation of missiles on residential roofs and absurd levels of sponsor protection hardly make it a role model for good pre-Games governance. That said, British media’s vocal criticism and threats of strikes by public workers have at least demonstrated that its civil society is in fairly good working order.

So far, Beijing might seem to have the upper hand – except that the London Games’ organizers insist that their eyes are not on the coming three weeks alone. What London’s facilities lack in looks, they could make up for in longevity, with planners displaying a real effort to avoid the post games dereliction of some previous hosts. Beijing’s Olympic facilities have not all found year-round uses, but London’s many temporary facilities will be cleared away for housing and parkland, while the stadium will be customized to house a soccer team. London’s Games will supposedly strive less to impress visitors and more to benefit locals, regenerating a large chunk of the city. Whether these promises are anything more than just that remains to be seen, but they certainly avoid the worst sort of Olympic short-termism. This attitude won’t make London’s games a better show, but it still might just give them the edge on Beijing.

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