While an improved infrastructure continues to benefit China's capital four years after the Beijing Olympic Games, a number of flagship sporting venues are encountering financial difficulties and others have been left deserted, leaving an uncertain future for the legacy of the Games.
BEIJING, CHINA (REUTERS) - From the dazzling fireworks of the opening ceremony to the moment the Olympic torch was finally extinguished, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games appeared to exceed the expectations of billions of people watching from across the world.
Four years later and China's bustling capital sees vastly improved public transport and infrastructure, but many of the venues built for the event languish unloved, underused and draining public finances.
The jewels in the crown, two architecturally-stunning buildings - the "Bird's Nest" stadium and the "Water Cube" aquatics centre - stand as monumental landmarks in the political and cultural hub of the world's fastest growing economy.
Receiving some 4.61 million visitors in 2011, the two main Olympic venues - which the Olympic committee president described as "beautiful" and "unprecedented" - primarily serve as tourist destinations.
"I came here to watch the Games. It was loud and exciting then. Since then, I have always recalled the great spectacle. Some friends travelled to Beijing from my hometown today, so I took them here in particular to experience the city's landmarks - the Bird's Nest and Water Cube - because they didn't have the chance to visit four years ago," said Beijing resident Zhang Yu inside the Water Cube, which sits in the shadow of the Bird's Nest.
Apart from income generated from tourism, the Bird's Nest also cashes in on a host of sporting and cultural events, maximizing its uses for the future. Both venues are now better known for the steady stream of visitors they attract - 4.61 million in in 2011 -
than for major sporting events. The stadium's management estimates that at the current rate, it will take some three decades to recoup the building costs, which were more than three billion yuan (480 million U.S. dollars).
The Water Cube, where an indoor water park operates for daily commercial profit, largely runs behind large bills for maintenance, energy consumption and asset depreciation.
It suffered from a financial loss of up to 11 million yuan (1.75 million U.S. Dollars) in 2011, even with the state's subsidy.
Many Chinese people, like tourist Li Fang, think the Olympic venues are wasteful.
"I think the building materials are very expensive and wasteful. (The Water Cube) changes water everyday, which is a huge waste of water resource. It also consumes lots of electricity when the lights are on. I think it's better to devote these resources to people's daily life. These expenses are totally non-sport and unnecessary," the 21-year-old said.
The lonely Beijing Olympic baseball site is now a deserted area covered in weeds and rubble. It stands at the centre of residential compounds and modern shopping malls.
The baseball venue is just one of a few Olympic sites left unattended at present.
Yan Qiang, chief sports editor of NetEase Media Group, pinpointed that Beijing organizers had failed to map out a long-term plan for the use of Olympic sports facilities.
"The cost for building the Olympic venues was substantial. But the organizers failed to have an overall plan regarding how to utilise the venues after the Olympic Games, when building these sites, or even bidding for the Olympics. For sports construction, the more frequently it's used, the longer it can actually live, the better protection it will receive, the more extensive the sports values will be spread from the social perspective. I think Beijing has a severe shortage in this regard," he said.
While the legacy of Beijing's sporting venues is troubled, the Olympic Games did bring long-term economic benefits such as urban development to the capital.
To improve civil infrastructure, the capital spent billions of dollars on roads, subways, parks and a vast airport terminal in the build-up to the Games of August 2008.
Today, citizens continue to enjoy the fast-expanding underground transportation system, while international passengers touch down and fly out of one the largest and busiest airports in the world.
"The Beijing Olympic legacy in terms of sports venues and sporting lifestyle is echoing the Olympic spirits. However, I think the Olympic radiation has a wider influence. It brought positive changes to the city's construction and image, and its residents," Yan said.
But for the sporting venues, the legacy of the Games remains unclear.
While the Beijing Olympics and flamboyant opening ceremony showcased China's growing wealth, its sporting achievements at the tournament, where the nation won 51 gold medals, has left a bitter taste in the future of its once-heralded venues.
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