For Beijing, the 2008 Olympics are simply a colossal and consummate marketing exercise, unparalleled in scale, spectacle, cost - and control
Arriving at Beijing airport gives a first taste of the breadth and scope of the 2008 Olympic Games. The terminal itself is huge and resembles a giant stingray adorned with imperial red pillars and the Olympic theme of “one world one dream”. The immigration officials were surprisingly welcoming - helped, I suspect, by the fact that before you leave the tender mercies of passport control you fill out an electronic rating system on the performance of the immigration officer who welcomed you to the country. Only in China, eh?
For Team GB, our greatest medal haul seemed to have come so far from our efforts on the water. Making our way to the rowing venue involved a one-and-a-quarter-hour drive out of town; all the roads were clear and one motorway was completely closed off and turned into a car park. I smiled inwardly, since often of a Monday morning the M25 looks unintentionally like a car park - here it is state-determined necessity.
The Games are a model of organisation and planning. There is a phenomenal sense of order, and watching our rowers win gold and silver the atmosphere was electric. The Chinese supporters tend to stamp their feet rather than clap, but we cheered - along with a smattering of Canadian and Australian supporters - as we watched our teams win a selection of bronze, silver and gold medals. It is nice to feel that you have done your bit for GB, even if it is to sit in the stands and shout.
The Chinese have invested nearly £30bn in a massive advertisement for China and nothing will be allowed to get in the way of that objective.
Returning to Beijing, the city is both massive and busy. The Bird's Nest Stadium would rival the Roman Coliseum for impact value and there are hundreds of “special helpers” dressed in blue outfits who are willing to direct you to any of the venues. Unfortunately, many don't really know their way around - I suspect they are from out of town. A guidebook and taxi driver are helpful, although many roads are closed and hotels and streets have been renamed, making the Beijing equivalent of “the knowledge” out of date - much to the taxi drivers' frustration.
Ticket scalping outside the major venues is rife. To my surprise, most of those selling black-market tickets seem to be Liverpudlians - with a sprinkle of Chinese entrepreneurs - and I kept thinking we were outside Wembley. The going rate to see US swimmer Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal was around £400 a ticket, roughly 10 times the face value. I understand there has been a fair amount of criticism about empty seats.
The construction industry in and around Beijing is dormant, with sites frozen and all activity mothballed for the four weeks of the Games (including the Paralympics). The Chinese have invested nearly £30bn in a massive advertisement for China and nothing will be allowed to get in the way of that objective.
You cannot but be impressed by the size, scope, design and organisation of these Games. It is foolish to make comparisons with the Thames Gateway or Stratford.
You cannot but be impressed by the size, scope, design and organisation of these Games. It is foolish to make comparisons with the Thames Gateway or Stratford. The Chinese have invested in a series of unique and striking national stadiums and, as one of the most powerful nations on the planet, they were bound to create something spectacular.
Notably, few of the 250,000 foreigners present for the Games are visible around the city itself. The venues and athletes' village are well away from the public gaze, and entry requires specific security clearance. With over 21,000 journalists in town, the keyword is “control”. Sophisticated searches are carried out before entry to any event arena, and there is a large - although polite - police presence all over Beijing.
Prices are inflated and hotels not cheap, but that is a feature of any big event - as anybody who has visited MIPIM would testify. The locals are friendly, and there is a sense of pride about what has been achieved. The streets are full of banners and posters and the theme “one world one dream” is all over town. This is China's chance to shine on the world stage, whatever the price tag - and it is working.
Richard Steer is senior partner at Gleeds