What’s worse than a snowless, subtropical Winter Olympics like the one that wrapped up in palm-tree-lined Sochi, Russia, this weekend? How about an opening ceremony on an arid, smog-choked plain and skiing events in the mountains of the most polluted province in all of China?
That's what Beijing and Zhangjiakou, a nearby mountain town, have proposed to the International Olympic Committee as an ideal site for the 2022 Winter Games. While athletes have been competing on Sochi's slopes, the Chinese Olympic Committee has been competing to establish its bid. Early on, it even earned an endorsement from Vladmir Putin.
That’s a pity. The other bidding cities -- Krakow, Poland; Oslo; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Lviv, Ukraine -- each have their own issues (especially Lviv, in light of the current Ukrainian upheaval). But each deserves a far more serious look than Beijing-Zhangjiakou, which judged purely on pollution levels, should be eliminated from consideration at the earliest opportunity.
It's hardly surprising that China would bid for the Winter Olympics. The 2008 Summer Games were a celebrated success that boosted China’s global profile. They established China's dominance in several summer events -- especially important on the mainland, where professional sports are often viewed as mere training for the honor to be earned in international competition. Winter sports, however, are still relatively new to China, and though the country’s athletes are advancing quickly, there’s still a long way to go before China can be considered a true winter power. China’s Olympic authorities are eager to turbocharge that process, and are hoping a successful Beijing-Zhangjiakou Olympic bid will help.
All countries have selfish reasons for hosting the Olympics. Putin wanted to showcase the transformation of Sochi, thereby spotlighting Russia’s development (and his steady autocratic hand). Theoretically, at least, the world benefited with a competition that -- dangerous, slushy slopes and halfpipes aside -- seems to have gone off without much of a hitch.
But all of the obstacles that Sochi had to overcome pale in comparison with what a Beijing-Zhangjiakou Games would face. The first concern, of course, is air pollution. In 2008, the Chinese government demonstrated against much skepticism (including mine) that it could keep its promise of clearing the skies before the Olympics. A range of control measures kept the air clean just long enough for the athletes to leave. In the months and years following, however, the air reverted to its previously smoggy levels, and then worsened so much that it consistently falls below World Health Organization standards.
No doubt, Beijing will promise to repeat its 2008 success for a 2022 Games. But rather than ask whether Beijing can clean up again, the IOC might better ask itself: Do we really want to participate in this kind of charade for a second time? Or would everyone be best served if Beijing were told it must wait until it has cleaned up its air permanently -- not just for a PR enhancing Olympics -- before hosting the games again. At the moment, the best that Yang Xiaochao, Beijing’s deputy mayor and the vice president of the bidding committee, can promise is a 25 percent reduction by 2017. That’s not good enough.
In comparison, the skies above Zhangjiakou, proposed home to alpine and other events, are relatively clear. According to state media, the city's air qualifies as the cleanest in Hebei, China’s most polluted province. But that’s not saying much: In 2013, Zhangjiakou’s air quality fell below national standards on 80 days. Winter, according to the data, is the worst season.
The Beijing-Zhangjiakou bid has some merits. Unlike most Olympics, it proposes to reuse venues -- specifically those built for the 2008 games, including the moribund Bird’s Nest stadium. It would be good if other Olympic cities could show a similar spirit of relative thrift. But thrift doesn't outweigh the need to hold an Olympics that’s safe for the athletes and worthy of the Olympic movement. For now, and into the foreseeable future, Beijing isn’t capable of meeting that standard. The IOC should look elsewhere as it begins the process of choosing the 2022 site.
(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in the Shanghai and the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter.)
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