Why Fake Snow Is Filling Beijing's Bird's Nest

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bill Frakes / Sports Illustrated

Fireworks explode over the National Stadium during the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In August, soccer giants Inter Milan and Lazio met here for the Italian Super Cup final. In October, a luxurious retelling of Puccini's opera "Turandot" came through for a week-long residence; in November, Formula One stars Michael Schumacher and Jensen Button zoomed around in a rally car race; and next month, thousands of tourists are expected to flood in when the doors are thrown open on a new wintersports wonderland.

No, this is not some Italian alpine retreat — this is Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. Eighteen months after the most ostentatious Olympics of all time, the organizers of the Beijing Games are finally facing a reckoning as they try to figure out how to keep their prized centerpiece stadium in the black. It is a quandary that has been faced by almost every other Olympic host city: how to ensure your gleaming new stadium doesn't become a municipal albatross after the two-week Olympic fiesta leaves town. But in Beijing, which does not boast a regular calendar of large-scale sporting events at the best of times, the problem is even more acute.

This time last year, none of this was a problem — the venue simply filled itself. Upwards of 50,000 tourists swelled in every day, shelling out over $7 (RMB 50) apiece just to get into the novel structure — and much, much more to pose for pictures alongside the official Olympic mascots or to stand at the medal podium itself. For the first few months after the Games, the daily operations cost of some $30,000 (RMB 200,000) was easily matched with ticket revenue.

But as Beijing Olympic fever faded, so has interest in its crown jewel. The early plan for the stadium was that it would become the home base for Guoan, Beijing's local soccer team and the current Chinese league champions. But even that team, arguably most popular in the country, seldom attracts more than 10,000 spectators a game, and the team backed out of an agreement to move their meagre fanbase into the 90,000 seater stadium before the Olympics even started. China's struggling national soccer team fares little better in the spectator stakes.

The empty seats have left CITIC Investment Holdings, the private management company that ran the Birds Nest, scrambling for other activities to draw the crowds and pay the bills. The result has been a hodgepodge of bizarre offerings. Alongside the rally cars and operas, the Birds Nest has also hosted a mass Tai Chi exercise event and a pop concert by kungfu legend Jackie Chan.

"Happy Snow and Ice Season," kicking off Dec. 19, is the latest get-rich-quick scheme. The program will see the stadium transformed into a frosted extravaganza, complete with a ski-slope, ice rink and 3.7 square miles of artificial snow that is heralded to be one-and-a-half feet deep. There's a lot riding on all that fake fluff; the winter sports park is also the first initiative at the Bird's Nest since the venue came under new management in August. The challenge of maintaining the stadium as a viable and profitable initiative evidently proved too much for CITIC, which quietly offloaded its management rights back to the government just 12 months into a 30-year contract.

Observers speculate that it will be easier for the Beijing government to arrange its own permits to organize the kind of ambitious programs that could keep the stadium out of the red. CITIC is rumored to have abandoned at least one project after state interference in the process. "The government believed it would make a greater profit by running the venue itself," the former deputy general manager of the stadium was quoted as saying after the handover, after he had left his own position. As he told the state-run China Daily, "There was no freedom for me, so I had to quit." The stadium's new managers now hope that the nation's prized Bird's Nest won't be fated to be an empty one.