Why Beijing Shouldn't Host The Winter Olympics

After months of evaluation, Beijing has been chosen to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee announced on Friday. The Chinese capital prevailed after facing relatively little competition, besting just one other contender, the virtually unknown city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Though Almaty might not have the recognition or glitz of an international hub like Beijing, the city had plenty of legitimate qualifications for hosting the Games that the IOC undoubtedly weighed extensively against Beijing's bid. However, perhaps it's not a matter of why Almaty should host the 2022 Winter Olympics, but why Beijing shouldn't, and these reasons are considerably more significant than either city's credentials.

The IOC made its announcement at its annual congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, revealing that Beijing had won by a margin of 44 to 40, which is surprisingly small when considering the vast difference in profile between the two cities. Though there were the standard celebratory speeches and events, the overall mood in Beijing this time around was palpably more subdued than 14 years ago, when the city was awarded hosting duties for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Perhaps it's because the city has been there, done that, or perhaps it's because after viable contenders like Oslo and Stockholm dropped out, the victory over the far-more-obscure Almaty doesn't exactly feel like a landmark occasion.

Or, maybe — just maybe — it's because even the Chinese people know that hosting yet another Olympic Games would be more of a burden than it's worth.

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For me, the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news was a painful image of throngs and throngs of countless people crammed onto the streets of Beijing unable to decipher the faces of those next to them because they were enshrouded in smog so thick it could kill a houseplant in minutes. Of course, this is merely an image in my mind, but it's certainly not a product of pure imagination. It's widely known that Beijing has a pollution problem, and its smog is some of the worst in the world.

I was in Beijing two weeks ago, so believe me when I say that this is not an exaggeration. It is a painful reality, only made more painful by the fact that Beijing is a glorious city, full of energy, culture, and endless discoveries. But it is encapsulated in air so impure that you literally cannot see two buildings deep. And forget about a skyline when you can't even see the sky. On even the sunniest day there, the sky had the feel of dirty paper with only the slightest tint of blue.

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According to a report released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last year, the amount of PM2.5 — particulate matter in the air that's small enough to enter human lungs and cause health problems — in Beijing's air since April 2008 has averaged 100 micrograms per cubic meter, which is six times the amount that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for humans to breathe in. In comparison, the smoggiest city in the U.S. — Bakersfield, Calif. — averages 18.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

In January, Beijing's mayor, Wang Anshun, told China Youth Daily, "At the present time, however, Beijing is not a livable city."

And he didn't mean for any reason other than the air quality.


So where am I getting at with all of this? Beijing's current state can be attributed to its staggering population of 20 million (that's 12 million more people than New York City) — that's a lot of motor traffic, industry, and general human activity releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Does it really make sense, then, to invite millions more people who will further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions? Not only does the influx of tourists help to enlarge the carbon footprint, but they themselves will not be treated to a pleasant environment in which to watch sporting events. I personally can't imagine spectators will be able to see halfway across the stadium due to the smog, which brings me to my next point.

Obviously, Beijing can successfully pull off hosting the Olympic Games; they've already done it once. But that's in part because the government sank nearly $17 billion into cleaning up the air in preparation for the 2008 Summer Games with measures like moving industrial plants, expanding public transportation, limiting motor traffic, and converting coal-fueled homes to electric.

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You might be thinking, "But this is a good thing." Here's the catch: It's like slapping a fancy (and pricey) Band-Aid on a festering wound and stopping the bleeding temporarily every so often instead of properly treating it at the source. The money Beijing spends on cleaning up the air temporarily for major events like the Olympics is money that's taken away from enforcing regular measures to improve the air quality. And the money Beijing spent in preparation for the 2008 Olympics was spent in vain. Just months after the Games, enforcement of the measurements ended and the city's smog levels returned to pre-Olympic levels, proving that the tactics used were far from long-lasting.

Furthermore, it's becoming increasingly clear that hosting the Olympics almost always ends up costing the host city more than it's worth. According to economics professor Victor Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., the notion that these large sporting events are prosperous for cities is a gross misconception:

Cities routinely offer to spend large sums of money in order to attract these events in large part based upon these exaggerated claims of an economic bonanza, but a skeptical public should beware of economists bearing reports showing great benefits from mega-events.
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That's because the cost of hosting the Olympics almost always exceeds the projected budget, stadiums built for Olympic sports often sit unused after the event is over, and in the case of Beijing, vast amounts of money will be spent on producing artificial snow for the Winter Games because the city does not produce enough of it naturally. Again, all of these costs will take away from the area in which Beijing should focus all of its spending, time, and energy: its pollution.

Like Mayor Wang, I'm not suggesting that Beijing is unfit to host the Olympics for any other reason than the pollution (and perhaps certain human rights violations that are better vented in another story). I'm saying that the city would benefit from holding off on hosting such a monumental event until it's in better conditions. When the city has put in its efforts to clean up its air — for the long term — then it can think about the spectacles it'll put on for the West to marvel at. And I would be first in line to join the commotion, because in spite of the smog, I would like nothing more than to visit the glorious city again.

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