BEIJING — The Chinese capital likes to dazzle visitors with the biggest and best projects in the world. Consider, for example, the Olympic Park built for the 2008 games. It is spread over nearly 12 square kilometers, intersected by a canal that, seen from above, resembles a dragon.
The park is an exhibition of the country’s Olympic accomplishments. There is the now-famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium and the “Water Cube” aquatic center that looks like a crystal chain from the outside. It uses solar energy to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The Beijing Olympics were, in fact, the most expensive in history for which China spent some $43 billion. Five years later, has it paid for itself? The other related question, of course, is what can Russia learn from China’s experience with the Olympics as it prepares to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Breaking the “Olympic curse”
As the selected host for next year's games was approaching this fall, CNN posted a list of the most-indebted games. Athens 2004 was No. 1. Saddest postscript about the massive Greek overspending are the now-empty stadiums and the Olympic village that was transformed into public housing. But Athens was not alone on this list of Olympic shames. Montreal, which took 30 years to pay off debt from the 1976 games, was also included, as was Lake Placid, Albertville and Nagano. China seemed to risk more than anyone else, but it looks like the Olympic curse passed over the Middle Kingdom.
The miracle buildings constructed in preparation for the 2008 games have not been abandoned. That is abundantly clear from visiting on any given day. There’s hardly room to move in the Water Cube, which is used now both as an aquapark and a tourist attraction.
And it’s not just foreign tourists flocking to the Olympic Park. Busloads of Chinese visitors from elsewhere in the country pose for photos in front of the signature Bird’s Nest, which also is kept quite busy, having hosted 81 different events that have drawn some 120 million spectators since 2008.
Of course, just because the complexes aren’t empty doesn’t mean that the cost of their construction has been paid off. The question of whether an Olympics covers its cost is often a misleading one: indeed, organizing committees often don’t include infrastructure costs in their budgets. And how do you quantify the increase in tourism and an improved investment climate for the city and the country?
As a result, every host city has its own way of bankrolling the Olympics. Some rent out the sports infrastructure, while others demolish them. The Chinese had a very simple approach about what to do with their Olympic structures, which they considered long before the actual games.
“We planned how we were going to use these building ahead of time,” says Liu Jingmin, vice chairman of the Beijing Association for City Development and the Olympics. They discussed what cultural events and exhibitions could be held in the new buildings.
In their report on the expenses and advantages of Olympic Games, economics researchers Rustem Nureev and Evgenii Markin cited an example from Beijing as a nearly ideal use of Olympic infrastructure and planning. The complex constructed to host the table tennis competition was built not in the Olympic area, but on the Beijing University campus, so that as soon as the Olympics ended the building could be used by students.
Today the complex hosts a modern fitness center for students that is also available to the public for a fee. The table tennis room, which is still decorated with the Olympic symbol, has been redone to host regular tennis matches. It is also used for singing competitions. Table tennis moved to an adjacent room, but it’s not forgotten, either. The walls are decorated with photographs of professional athletes, as well as local and student stars. The Chinese value their talent.
Liu Bei, who oversees the complex, says that it turns a profit and requires no state subsidies. It sounds pragmatic, almost Western. But when asked about the most exciting moments at the Olympics, where he volunteered, he sounds very Chinese: The moment when then-President Hu Jintao came by. And in sports? Of course, the table tennis final.
Metro and sun
One university student who only saw the Olympics on television remembers very well rushing to see the torch relay with her whole school because their physical education teacher was carrying the torch.
It seems like everyone in China has a similar memory about the Beijing Olympics, and maybe that’s part of the formula for success. The games became a national project for the Chinese, and ticket sales — 95.6% of them sold — reflected the nationwide excitement. Until 2008, the Sydney Olympics had led in attendance, having sold 88% of tickets.
It’s also incredible how the Olympics changed the Chinese capital. The number of Metro lines increased from four to eight. In 2001, the city’s Metro was 42 kilometers long. By 2008, it was 200 kilometers, and by 2010 it was 336 kilometers. It is planned to be 600 kilometers by 2018.
The Olympics also inspired the Chinese to address their smog problem, although the steps they took were not enough to completely solve Beijing’s pollution.
The most important lesson from China is that pulling off a profitable Olympics means planning for the long-term and creating an Olympic infrastructure that the city can use long after the world's athletes are gone.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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