BEIJING - Inside the stadium, the pride of an entire nation and its people is obvious. Various screens, including a giant one in the middle, display footage of the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony over and over again. The souvenir shop sells more than 300 different products. But a salesman says point blank: The Birds Nest memorabilia sells better than the rest.
Beijing travel agencies agree. The Olympic stadium is now the citys third most visited monument by Chinese tourists, right after the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. Countless ads have used it as their background. After only three years of existence, the Birds Nest is already part of history.
The number one reason for its success is that it represents Chinese pride as well as the exceptional success of the Beijing Olympic Games. China is not only satisfied with transforming its capital and organizing the worlds biggest event glitch-free, it also prides itself for finishing first in the medal count with 100 overall, 51 of them gold.
But the Birds Nest is more than just that. It is also the symbol of the countrys return to the international spotlight. The stadium has truly become an icon of modern China. Besides China, what other country has the resources to build something like that? asks Tessa Aryani Untung, an Indonesian architect based in Beijing.
Everything about this building screams huge resources: 1,085 acres, nearly 580 million dollars, and only four years of work thanks to the 7,000 people who worked on the construction site. As a tribute, their pictures are displayed around the stadium. But among the different ingredients needed to carry out this project, the most precious is also the most immaterial one: boldness. In choosing a singular and innovative design, China proved it could be open-minded, contradicting the image the rest of the world had of China. This open-mindedness can be seen through the stadiums design: the aim was clearly to display the buildings frame, not hide it. Such a choice reflects Chinas desire to show the world that its now capable of the most amazing achievements, says Tessa Aryani Untung.
One could also see this bold move as a sign that the country is evolving in terms of aesthetics. According to a Chinese architect who refused to be identified, China is a country which has been assimilating western values for the past 30 years and is now facing an unprecedented cultural break-up. The apparent chaotic framework of the Birds Nest can be seen as the perfect symbol of this phenomenon. He adds that today, everyone wants something to attract attention. Most big Chinese cities want to organize their own event in order to create their own Birds Nest. And so came the 2010 Shangai World Expo, Guangzhous 2010 Asia Games and even Shenzhens World Student Games.
A major maintenance challenge
But how long can people remain in awe of a building, which symbolizes something that is now obvious? The flow of tourists has already weakened. Right after the Games, an 80,000-visitors-a-day limit was set up in reaction to the buildings incredible success. Today, only a few thousand people come to the stadium every day.
The Birds Nest is struggling to find a viable business model, a common problem for Olympic stadiums. Because of its multiple outdoor columns, it is also very sensitive to pollution. It is one of Chinas major challenges today in terms of maintenance, says Tessa Aryani Untung. Its also far from the city center and badly-served by public transportation.
And to make things worse, its surprisingly hard to organize sporting events in this particular stadium. Zhang Qing, CEO of the Key Solution consulting firm, explains that its too big considering how slowly professional sport is developing in China.
Symbolically, the building may also suffer from the ambiguous memories left by the 2008 Games. If Chinese pride is still there, it is now stained with bitterness. The Chinese showed their eagerness to reintegrate into the international community with slogans such as One world, one dream.
But in 2008, they suddenly discovered that some countries had no intention of sharing their dream. They thought the Olympic Games were only about sports, but the event turned out to be more political and it hurt [the Chinese organizers], says Bo Zhiyue, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore referring to the Olympic torch incidents in Paris, London and San Francisco.
According to Zheng Yongnian, head of the East Asian Institute, during the Games, Chinese people lost their illusions. It was a real trauma in a country where the media have been pushing the idea of Chinas peaceful rise. The Games were supposed to boost the countrys opening to the world. Chinese civil society has opened up but the political system hasnt, he says.
As a result there is an increasingly visible gap between the regime and the people. On the one hand, Chinese people travel more and more, they are better connected to the world and they have a healthier relationship with the outside world. On the other hand, the political regime feels more confident than ever. According to Zheng Yongnian, this confidence comes from the success of the Olympic Games, which in a way confirmed that the Chinese regime, in which the State has resources and runs things, is good.
Instead of opening a new chapter in Chinas political history, the Beijing Olympics seem to have brought an end to the countrys convergence with the rest of the world. With its outstanding design and yet eroding popular success, the Birds Nest is a kind of embodiment of current tensions between the regimes excessive confidence and the growing number of questions the people have begun to pose.
Read the original article in French
Photo - Francisco Diez