Funds for sporting white elephants would be better spent on residents

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am

Beijing had its Olympics and Shanghai will have its Expo, so from now on no mainland metropolis feels complete without an extravagant international assemblage.

Guangdong, battered by the global economic downturn, is keen to get in on the act. So much so that it is investing up to 20 billion yuan (HK$22.7 billion) in sports facilities ahead of next year's Asian Games in Guangzhou and the 2011 Summer Universiade in Shenzhen.

Many of the big-ticket facilities already exist in Guangzhou - for example, an 80,000-seat stadium. Nevertheless, it will still shell out for a 1,700-seat venue for the ball game sepak takraw, and facilities for basketball and swimming.

Shenzhen is undertaking a more ambitious building approach, most notably with the 4.1 billion yuan 60,000-seat Universiade Centre.

It will cost 500 million yuan more than Beijing's National Stadium, and Shenzhen officials have repeatedly boasted of its advanced construction techniques, which are more complicated than those needed to produce the eye-catching steel 'Bird's Nest' lattice frame.

The infrastructure binge for the Universiade also includes an 18,000-seat indoor arena, a 13.4 square kilometre athletes village and five new metro lines, and propaganda officials are quick to point out the opportunity the games offer Shenzhen to advance its international reputation. But what is the Universiade?

The games are a biennial multi-sports event organised by the International University Sports Federation. The most recent games took place in early July in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

Just 300 reporters were given accreditation for the Universiade - compared with 21,600 for the Beijing Games - and it barely rated a mention in the international media.

There's little evidence that the Universiade did anything to increase Belgrade's profile but, nevertheless, Shenzhen will spend 8 billion yuan on the games, more than 10 times what Serbia spent.

The one thing that might attract attention is the event's links to the city's disgraced former mayor, Xu Zongheng.

Xu pushed for the city's hosting of the games for more than three years until he was placed under graft investigation in June. Government sources revealed that Xu was detained ahead of his departure to Belgrade for the handover ceremony, as the central government feared he might try to escape overseas.

Some media reports suggested that the trigger for Xu's downfall was the city's decision to drop the winning design for the new stadium - submitted by the 'Bird's Nest' architects - in favour of one that failed expert assessments and was more expensive.

Even without the former mayor's tainted footprint, it is questionable how much a spectacular stadium can really do for a city's reputation.

While the 'Bird's Nest' proved a hit, since then it has staged just one sporting event. Worse, pictures from visitors show piled-up garbage and dirty puddles, cracked floors and seats covered with dust.

The question many in Shenzhen are asking is whether infrastructure projects - the city is investing 60 billion yuan in 842 projects that started in February - are really the best use of public funds.

While Shenzhen is, on paper, one of the mainland's richest cities, thousands of migrant children are forced to attend shabby, tented schools. Hundreds of thousands of people live in spartan dormitories and survive on the minimum wage with no health care or pensions.

Rather than spending 4 billion yuan on an extravagant stadium for unknown athletes who will stay for only 12 days, the authorities might consider how to bring long-term benefits to the city's vast majority.

While vanity projects and infrastructure-induced production spikes may be the stuff of career advancement for officials, improving the lives of the people will earn more praise than any glitzy arena ever will.