Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
But it may just be the only realistic one.
Athens will never be the permanent home of the Olympic Games. It’s a nice idea, rooted in nostalgia and respect for Greece as the ancient birthplace of the games. It’s also a stab at a solution to the problems that plague the Olympics, born out of an urgent sense of frustration with the status quo—and maybe a (misguided) attempt to heel the Greek economy. Bring the games home to Athens, critics say, and stop imposing these unreal costs on city after city.
Building temporary venues for a sporting mega-event that demands unrivaled extravagance of its hosts is a bad bet for most any city. Finding a fixed port-of-call for the Olympics is an alternative vision that has a lot of admirers. But Athens would never be chosen as that permanent host. It would be Beijing.
The International Olympic Committee announced last week that Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Games, making the first city in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Games. The choice was controversial before it was ever announced: Many more eligible host cities dropped out of contention, leaving just Beijing and Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, to bid for the event.
Maybe it’s time to give up the ghost. As more and more Western cities concede to the criticism of the games (and of the way that the International Olympic Committee runs the bidding process), why not let China host them over and over—or even in perpetuity? Here are six reasons why Beijing was a terrible choice for the 2022 Games, but one big reason why it might be the most realistic choice, both now and in the future.
1. It never snows in Beijing, where China is betting on ski tourism
All the major skiing events for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games are planned to take place in Zhangjiakou, a city that lies between Beijing and Inner Mongolia, right on the edge of the Gobi Desert. This is one of the least snowiest spots in Asia.
It’s a testament to the weirdness of the bidding process for the Olympic Games that an arid desert climate is not considered a disqualifying obstacle to hosting the Winter Games. According to The Economist, China will spend $90 million on “water-diversion schemes” to import enough water to make it work. It’s part of a plan to build a skiing industry in a part of China that can’t otherwise reasonably hope to sustain one.
The 2022 Winter Games will further China’s dream of a winter belt around Beijing. The country has already spent a gargantuan $62 billion to divert water from the south to the north just to solve water scarcity, so $90 million—even $900 million—is a drop in the bucket by comparison. The Winter Games would lend the familiar Olympic rings imprimatur to Beijing’s terraforming effort, a prospect that alarms climate scientists and water conservationists.
Fake snow doesn’t seem to bother the International Olympic Committee. If this is the standard for a successful bid, what reasonable chance does in a democratic country (with real oversight) even stand?
2. China doesn’t respect migrant workers’ rights
In the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, Human Rights Watch released a landmark report on how Chinese firms exploit migrant construction workers. The report offered reform suggestions for both China and the International Olympic Committee to avoid the abuses of the previous games, when some 4 million migrant workers were brought to Beijing to build Olympic stadiums, venues, and infrastructure.
“Though the human rights situation is dire in China, the spotlight of the Olympics provides China the chance to improve upon its record of repression and showcase and celebrate all positive facets of the country,” reads a new release from Human Rights Watch. “Regrettably, when China hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, this wasn’t the case. The crackdown on dissent only intensified and lives were lost.”
That pressure might still win the day. China may hope to avoid the criticism that has mounted around the 2022 FIFA World Cup, preparations for which have already cost hundreds of migrant workers their lives. Certainly the wildly corrupt and exploitative 2014 Sochi Winter Games represents one of the biggest failures in Olympic history. However, China has yet to yield on many other human-rights fronts, and the country’s reputation didn’t suffer after the 2008 Olympics.
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee adopted new reforms last December, including protections for LGBTQ athletes, but little in the way of safeguards for workers’ rights.
3. Beijing stole ‘Let It Go’ from Queen Elsa
I know Disney’s Frozen well enough to know Queen Elsa’s tragic theme when I hear it. And from the very first note, Beijing’s “The Snow and Ice Dance” sounds an awful lot like ”Let It Go.”
As The New York Times observes, “The Snow and Ice Dance” is one of 10 official songs for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. It’s the song that seems to be getting the most attention—much it negative, from both sides of the Pacific. The mere presence of a man’s voice in the Chinese version (a duet) won't quiet critics who clearly hear the tune from Frozen.
It’s not a note-for-note copy, but there are enough similarities to raise eyebrows. Both songs start with a dark, twinkling piano line that builds into an explosive, melodic chorus. They move at the same tempo, and they’re performed in the same key. (Hit play on both simultaneously and take note of how nicely the songs line up, at least until the chorus.)
Frozen made nearly $1.3 billion at the box office; it enjoyed one of its biggest opening weekends worldwide in China. If any song has claim to the title of global anthem, it’s “Let It Go.” That said, copying somebody else’s artwork isn’t really in keeping with the competitive spirit of the Olympic Games.
Maybe Beijing is just hoping to borrow some of Queen Elsa’s frost-making magic.
4. Beijing is no Almaty (and that’s a bad thing)
It’s a ghastly calculus, choosing between authoritarian states on human-rights abuses. Kazakhstan’s government, much like China’s, has quashed speech rights for citizens and censored media. In the run-up to the Olympics bid, Kazakhstan’s parliament even tried to move a bill prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation.” An Almaty Olympics could be a vehicle for corruption to rival the Sochi Olympics.
Human-rights abuses being equal (how horrible is that?), Almaty presented what was in many respects the better bid. It snows in Almaty, for starters. (Indeed: The theme of Almaty’s bid was “Keeping It Real.”) The bid would have been more compact, too, with all venues and facilities located within an 18-mile radius. That’s the sort of planning that might rescue the Olympics from soaring costs in the future.
5. China doesn’t care about soaring costs
Maybe China has the experience to keep the costs of the 2022 event under a proposed $3 billion. But does China face any serious consequences if and when costs run over? It hasn’t stopped the government in the past.
The Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms proposed last fall (and passed in December) didn’t go far enough to mollify would-be European host cities, who dropped out of the bid for the 2022 Games one by one. China paid upwards of $40 billion to host the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The government is spending billions to create a skiing industry around Beijing, where it doesn’t snow.
That’s the thing: China is committed to massive infrastructure projects and investments. Until the government follows through on “rebalancing,” as Ana Swanson writes for The Washington Post—meaning a pivot toward services and other aspects of the economy—it simply does not make sense for other nations to try to compete with Beijing.
6. The Winter Games are awful
A crucial sidebar: Reihan Salam’s case against the Winter Olympics for Slate still holds true. They’re just too white. (Jamaican bobsled team notwithstanding.)
All that said, China (and Asia) might be the only realistic host
The best argument for hosting the games in Beijing—or Moscow, Doha, Almaty, and other authoritarian states, in or near Asia—is that Western democracies simply can’t compete on this scale. When a successful bid is built on exploiting migrant workers’ rights, rampant corruption, or creating snow where it doesn’t naturally exist, voters simply aren’t going to go for it.
Tokyo is a relevant example. Support for hosting the 2020 Summer Games is waning due to soaring construction costs (and one particularly extravagant stadium design). Boston voters wouldn’t back a bid that required residents to carry the costs of any overruns. Opinions on the games aren’t neatly split between the West and East by any means, but voters are souring on the Olympics in at least some places where voters have a choice.
Abandoning the Olympics to totalitarian states is an unsatisfying prospect for human-rights watchers and Olympics lovers, for sure. (Then again, there’s always the possibility that starring on the global stage will lead the governments of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Qatar, and other nations with troubling rights records to adopt reforms faster than they otherwise might.) Hosting the Olympics worked for some U.S. cities in the past. But that was then. The rationale for hosting a mega-event doesn’t work if a Beijing or a Doha is willing to pay the costs of an Olympics no matter how high they rise. Either the International Olympic Committee adopts the necessary reforms to favor thrift and resiliency and support for human rights, or it stays the present course.
Totalitarian regimes may one day ruin the Olympics. So be it. That’s better than watching the Olympics ruin cities. Just give the games to Beijing.