The Olympic Games provide a grand spectacle for their hosts to take advantage of. The 2008 Olympics provided China with a ‘coming-out party’ on the international stage and gave Beijing the opportunity to undertake massive development projects under the associated patriotic fervour. Whilst the media focused on the grandeur of the opening ceremony and the athletes’ performances, what was mostly ignored were the 1.5 million residents who had been displaced in preparation for the Games (Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions 2007). So, would the 2022 Winter Games be any different?
Perhaps the crowning moment of Beijing’s second Olympics as host was the success of China’s poster girl of the games, Eileen Gu. The eighteen-year-old sensation is ubiquitous in China, representing numerous luxury brands and appearing on magazine covers, including Chinese Vogue, and being the world’s best freestyle skier. In Beijing, Gu won a silver and two golds, including the big air, held at the Shougang Big Air venue. For the Chinese Olympic Planning Committee, this was the perfect stage for the Chinese starlet to shine.
Unusually located in Beijing’s city centre, Shougang Big Air rises impressively out of an industrial landscape amidst the smokestacks of a former steel mill. The venue’s reception was decidedly mixed, with some describing it as a dystopian ‘hellscape’ while others touted it as innovatively regenerative. Chinese planners would agree with the latter, using Shougang to demonstrate the Games’ carbon-neutral credentials. However, behind this spectacle of Olympic success and sustainable urban regeneration lies wider state practices of environmental improvement that are markedly unsustainable, which Shougang aptly reflects.
The old steel mill is symbolic of China’s rapid economic development, from which China’s one-party rule obtains its legitimacy (McCarthy 2010). Under the goal of societal modernisation, economic growth has subordinated all other issues in China, including those environmental (Wang 2009). The cost has been great environmental deterioration, including unhealthily high pollution levels in China’s cities, which have plagued its capital. In the mid-2000s, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on Earth were in China, a great embarrassment to the state that prides itself on improving the living conditions of and expanding its middle class (The World Bank 2007).
To address this issue, a strategy was put into place to rid the cities of their most polluting sources. In the capital region, which also includes Tianjin and Hebei, this has meant outsourcing 53% of consumption-based emissions to poorer, peripheral areas (Fang et al. 2019). This includes the Shougang mill, which was not replaced by the Olympic venue but moved out of Beijing’s centre to improve the air quality of city residents. Of course, the improvements in air quality for Beijing’s middle class have come at the cost of the peripheral residents’ dispossession of air quality.
It is not just air quality that the state is taking from these residents; Beijing suffers from intense water scarcity, with resources per capita 1/20 of the national average and 1/80 of the global average (Long et al. 2020). Despite this, the Olympic alpine skiing events took place at the Yanqing venue. Possibly even more absurd looking than Shougang, the ski slopes are found in Beijing’s semi-arid mountainous outskirts, relying entirely on 49 million gallons worth of artificial snow (Sport Ecology et al. 2022). Ironically during the games, the little snow that did fall caused significant schedule disruption, highlighting the unsuitability of the venue for the winter Olympic competition.
The huge volumes of water needed to service the Yanqing venue come from pumping water out of underground storage. This leaves less water available to local agriculturalists, already suffering from the scarcity of their principal resource. Despite this, many of these agricultural residents supported hosting the Games, citing the economic benefits and jobs that would come with a ski-tourism industry. However, the ski industry itself is just as vulnerable to scarcity – one of the region’s other ski resorts closed due to rocketing water prices.
Increasing water prices come from Beijing’s growing demand as the changing climate brings drier conditions. Extraction far outpaced the recovery of the underground stores, and subsidence became a big issue. The state’s response has been to find a technical fix to this problem. The massive South-To-North Water Diversion (SNWD) project has been redirecting water from the south to the cities of the north for two decades (Long et al. 2020). Despite the SNWD’s success in stabilising subsidence rates, as Beijing’s middle-class demands increase, including for a growing ski industry, the SNWD is set to expand in the west (see figure below).
The water that services the capital’s elite is being taken from areas with even greater environmental issues, including desertification. So far, protests from the water source provinces have been minimal, with provincial leaders keen to contribute to the ruling party’s economic success, thus accelerating their own careers within the party (Chien 2010). The potential gains of an expanding ski industry are indeed huge – estimated at 1 trillion yuan (Sport Ecology et al. 2022). This focus on short-term gains and technical fixes risks neglecting wider environmental deterioration and the social unrest it could bring. Desertification already impacts a quarter of China’s territory, which is set to worsen with increased climate change.
Despite such issues, and their mission to help build a better, sustainable world, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has firmly backed Beijing’s hosting of the Games and their claims of a sustainable Olympiad. The IOC seems to have a different view of reality in this situation, claiming that “Yanqing is rich in water resources in comparison with neighbouring areas.” For Professor Butler at Strathclyde University, this is evidence of how ‘meaningless’ using the term sustainable now is in mega-events and beyond. In backing Beijing’s policies, the IOC provide them with a source of international legitimation, contributing to China’s environmental deterioration.
And it is not just sustainability issues the IOC is defending on behalf of its 2022 host. Hiding behind its guise of political neutrality, it is accused of dismissing the concerns of human rights organisations and Uyghur groups in relation to the abuses the minority group are facing in Xinjiang. The Beijing Olympic Organising Committee, which the IOC works with directly, calls such accusations ‘lies’. Similar controversy surrounds the ongoing concerns for the safety of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. After making accusations of sexual assault against a former senior state politician, she has largely remained out of the public eye except for a few state-controlled engagements. The IOC’s contact with Shuai has not eased concerns over her safety – their meeting at the games was organised and tightly controlled by Beijing, including the questions and answers. Taking a much harder line, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) continue their suspension of tournaments in Chinauntil they see a more sufficient resolution to this case.
Resultingly, unlike the 2008 Olympics, the 2022 spectacle has seemed to have focused the spotlight on China’s social and environmental issues rather than serving to hide them. However, China appears indifferent; since 2008, it has firmly established itself as a global superpower, making new allies. Indeed, despite all the issues, during the Games, there was a considerable amount of successful Olympic diplomacy with countries such as Argentina, Pakistan and Russia. Successfully hosting the Games on time during the covid pandemic (a dig at the year-late Tokyo Games highlighted in the opening and closing ceremonies) and against US-led international media backlash serves the state by portraying strength to its people and allies.
For now, the state has its public’s backing – why question the state’s methods of continued development, even if “the water goes to the city people.” However, there is a risk of reversing this trend if environmental issues are not sufficiently addressed. Desertification not only threatens social unrest amongst water source regions but in Beijing too. Sandstorms are on the rise – 2021 saw three sandstorms in just five weeks, including the worst in a decade, with residents concerned that overall air quality is reversing. This harms the state-produced spectacle of Beijing as a world-class city and the state’s legitimacy as a result.
The IOC also must reflect on its actions and their impact on the legitimacy of the organisation. In recent years the Olympic values and spectacle have been scarred by socio-environmental issues in Rio, Sochi and Beijing. Perhaps as fewer candidate cities have put themselves forward for hosting the mega-event, the IOC has been wary of impeding on those who want to host, fearing the Olympic machine may be limping to a halt. However, much like the frailty of China’s focus on short-term environmental fixes, this may result in more significant, long-term damage. Similar considerations are equally appropriate to other mega-event organisations like FIFA.
Indeed, be wary of the spectacle; it is far more than surface deep.
Chien, S.S. (2010) ‘Economic freedom and political control in post-Mao China: A perspective of upward accountability and asymmetric decentralization.’ Asian Journal of Political Science 18(1): 69-89.
Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) (2007) Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights. Geneva: COHRE.
Fang, D., Chen, B., Hubacek, K., Ni, R., Chen, L., Feng, K. and Lin, J. (2019) ‘Clean air for some: Unintended spillover effects of regional air pollution policies.’ Science Advances 5(4): p.eaav4707.
Long, D., Yang, W., Scanlon, B.R., Zhao, J., Liu, D., Burek, P., Pan, Y., You, L. and Wada, Y. (2020) ‘South-to-North Water Diversion stabilizing Beijing’s groundwater levels.’ Nature Communications 11(1): 1-10.
McCarthy, G. (2010) ‘The climate change metanarrative, state of exception and China’s modernisation.’ Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 6(2): 252-266.
Sport Ecology., Loughborough University London and Protect our Winters. (2022) Slippery slopes. How climate change is threatening the Winter Games. Available at: https://www.sportecology.org/_files/ugd/a700be_9aa3ec697a39446eb11b8330aec19e30.pdf (Accessed 6thApril 2022).
The World Bank (2007) China’s Urbanization: Benefits, Challenges and Strategies. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
Wang, H. (2009) The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity. London; New York: Verso.
About the author
Tom Bowe is an international development consultant based in London. He recently completed his MSc in Environment and Development and BA in Geography, both at the LSE. His research interests include political ecology, sustainable development and mega sporting events.