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8 legacies from Beijing
Published August 25, 2008
The bar was set impossibly high: The 2008 Olympics would be the greatest. Ever.
A nation would celebrate its arrival as a modern power. A swimmer would chase Olympic history. A potential 1.3 billion fans would be converted. And an unprecedented worldwide audience would watch on TV.
How could the Beijing Games possibly meet such high expectations?
It’s hard to say, but by most accounts, they did. As a result, Olympic stakeholders say the 2008 Games will leave a series of lasting legacies. So in keeping with the Chinese theme of “8” as a lucky number, here’s a look at eight legacies from Beijing that Olympic experts expect to be remembered for years to come.
On Aug. 8, 2008, China banged its drums loudly — 2,008 of them to be exact — and came out to the world. It was a moment that embodied what many say is the legacy of the 2008 Games.
“These Games are going to be an exclamation point for the full arrival of the country of China on the world scene,” said Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “China showed its heart in the opening ceremonies.”
Journalist Orville Schell, who has written 14 books about China, agreed, saying, “This is a huge step up in China’s long progress toward being a great nation. It will have a very positive effect in that its incredible performance will help instill a long-missing sense of self-confidence.”
And it all began with the opening ceremony. The event was witnessed by an estimated 4 billion television viewers worldwide and attended by a record-setting 86 heads of state.
Over the 16 days that followed, the Games had its share of distractions — a fake singer, fake fireworks, fake protest zones, fake sell-outs — but for the most part those were overshadowed by what many in and outside of Beijing considered to be an organizational, athletic and production success.
Just how much the Olympics changed China’s policy on Internet restrictions or human rights remains to be seen. But some argue that focusing on that misses the broader point.
“The Games has helped,” Schell said. “It hasn’t yet made China more open and transparent, but by succeeding in the Games and gaining a new measure of self-confidence, China will be able to achieve those things in the long run.”
In the U.S., stadiums become icons because of memorable events like a Babe Ruth home run at Yankee Stadium or the Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field.
But Beijing’s marquee Olympic stadiums — the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube” — became icons before they even held an event.
The Beijing National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, as they’re officially named, have been praised as architectural treasures. The venues dominated the Olympic Green. At night, the Water Cube’s bubbled exterior changed from rose to green to fuchsia and blue, and the Bird’s Nest lit up from inside with a fiery red glow that radiated through its steel façade.
Great moments in sport eventually took place at those two stadiums, adding to their uniqueness. The Water Cube became the spot where Michael Phelps displayed his dominance en route to a record-breaking eight gold medals, and the Bird’s Nest played host to the stunning speed of Jamaican Usain Bolt, who made both the 100- and 200-meter world records his own.
Throughout the Games, people walking the Olympic Green stopped to take pictures with the stadiums in the background. They were a sight to behold and one that almost everyone wanted to remember.
“The sheer majesty of the Bird’s Nest or the Water Cube — they are in my view some of the most iconic stadia you’ve ever seen in the world,” said Michael Payne, the former director of marketing for the International Olympic Committee. “London will never be able to compete with China on the stadiums.”
The Chinese spent some $500 million constructing the Bird’s Nest and more than $150 million constructing the Water Cube. The combined price tag of $650 million seems reasonable by Western standards but would soar if they were constructed in a market like Europe or the U.S., making it unlikely a host city in the near future will ever duplicate those facilities.
“A lot of this will have to do with how the IOC prioritizes the program of the Games of the future,” said Jerry Anderson, senior principal of HOK Sport. “Will something like this ever be done again? The answer eventually will be yes. To me these are architectural icons, and they’ve been a tremendous setting for the theater of sport.”
The Beijing Games are being heralded by many sports business leaders as a catalyst for an emerging sports market. The Games sparked significant advancements in Beijing across every basic sports business practice, from concessions and merchandise sales to ticket distribution and sports sponsorship.
The perfect example is merchandising. In the build-up to the Games, there was significant concern that the Chinese marketplace would be overloaded with counterfeit goods. But the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee limited the number of distributors of product to a few thousand. That allowed it to easily identify counterfeiters and protect official licensees.
The Games also led to the construction of major arenas in Beijing. The NBA and AEG will operate one of them — the Beijing Olympic basketball arena — after the Games, creating Beijing’s first entertainment venue with Western-style suites and full hospitality service. The operators plan to host some 90 events a year at the stadium.
For all of its advancements, though, China is still learning how to service the fan. Bathrooms in the new gymnastics stadium were without toilet paper 25 minutes into an early competition; the Olympic basketball stadium was originally designed without concessions; and venue entryways with multiple security scanners often only had one working.
But the Olympics suggested that those issues could be overcome.
Jeff Sofka, who opened a sports marketing business in China 3 1/2 years ago, said the Olympics were the first time he’d seen a Chinese crowd attend a sporting event and do many of the things common in the West.
“What was exciting to see was tens of thousands of Chinese buying tickets, bringing kids, buying soda and beer, waving flags and buying merchandise,” said Sofka, whose firm Bendigo Co. helps brands and properties enter China. “There’s not a lot of places you see that in China. Hopefully this has opened the door to make that a bigger part of the cultural landscape.”
The expectations before the Beijing Games were that ratings would be in the 13.0 to 15.0 range. Even NBC’s guarantee of a 14.5 rating suggested a drop from previous Olympics.
But the numbers through two weeks of competition exceeded expectations.
Riding a tidal wave created by the building story line of Michael Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals, NBC posted an average 17.1 rating over the first 12 nights. It also delivered the largest margins of victory for any network in prime-time history during the week of Aug. 11-17, garnering four times the household ratings of its closest competitor.
“They’re basking in the glory now and that’s their right,” said Rick Gentile, who produced three Olympic broadcasts on CBS and now works as the director of sports polling at Seton Hall University. “(The Beijing Games) really put some life into what has not been a must-see-TV event (in recent years).”
The ratings immediately affected NBC’s bottom line. The network sold $25 million in advertising in the 12 days after the opening ceremony, helping push sales beyond the $1 billion mark that it eclipsed before the Olympics began.
Gentile expects that sales success to extend through London in 2012 and possibly beyond.
“The good news is they’re selling for London off of China,” Gentile said. “They may have to guarantee a higher number, but London will have its own appeal and on the basis of the ratings, which were great, they’ve shown there’s a lot of life left in the franchise.”
The ratings also bode well for the IOC, which will open bidding for U.S. broadcast rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games later this year. NBC won the last round of bidding with a $2 billion bid that was a 33 percent increase from its 2006 and 2008 rights bid. With NBC, ESPN/ABC and Fox all expected to bid, the rights are sure to rise again.
Each morning Michael Phelps stepped on the pool deck everyone watching wondered — were they witnessing history?
Over nine days, 17 races and eight events, Phelps did what many believed was impossible by winning eight gold medals. Along the way, he took Olympic viewers on a thrill ride punctuated by stunning moments: Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind victory in the 400 freestyle relay, a 200 butterfly win in which Phelps swam blind after his goggles filled with water, and a 100 butterfly that was won by a mere one-hundredth of a second.
“President (Jacques) Rogge spoke about how the Games need icons and he mentioned Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis,” said Rick Burton, the USOC’s chief marketer. “I think these Games will be recalled as the Games of Michael Phelps.”
In the days since he won his eighth medal, some have debated whether Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time, but that’s missing the point. His achievements stand alongside those of other great Olympians as something that can be talked about for decades to come.
They also promise to make him one of the most profitable Olympians of all time. Phelps’ earnings will easily surpass $100 million over his lifetime, raising the value of all current and future Olympic endorsements.
What a difference eight years makes. In 2000, NBC’s big move was to broadcast the Olympics across all of its cable channels. This year, its big move was to push the Beijing Games across NBCOlympics.com, streaming some 2,200 hours of video online.
Despite the limits placed on online video by NBC’s decision to premiere events during prime-time broadcasts, online experts say the network’s digital strategy worked and resulted in an evolution in the presentation of the Olympics.
NBCOlympics.com through the first week of the Games generated 628 million page views, which is 12 percent more than the 561 million page views for the combined totals of the 2004 Athens and 2006 Torino Games. It also delivered 31.1 million video streams, which was up 188 percent from the 10.8 million combined streams from Athens and Torino, according to the network.
“Given the constraints placed by the primary broadcasts, they did a remarkable job,” said Keith Ritter, an independent digital consultant who most recently led the NHL’s digital efforts. “The Silverlight technology was well done and the ability to tune in to multiple events was well done.”
For all of its success, the results of NBC’s digital was criticized by some for its resistance to stream live events it planned to air in prime time. But Ritter expects that will change in the future as a result of the success NBC had online during the Beijing Games.
“The way we used to do things in an ABC Olympics world are no longer possible,” Ritter said. “Depending on the time difference from London, NBC’s approach will probably change.”
Throughout the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the IOC and BOCOG presented a united front. But like one of Beijing’s whitewashed buildings, working together wasn’t always as harmonious as it appeared.
The most public example of behind-the-scene strains occurred the week before the Olympics when media discovered that Web sites for Amnesty International were blocked in the press center. IOC press commission chairman Kevan Gosper claimed Chinese officials broke their assurances that Web sites would be accessible, creating tension between BOCOG and the IOC before the Games even began.
There was also some confusion over accessibility to the Olympic Green. Initially, BOCOG limited access to the Green to ticket holders for events at venues within the Green. That limited the number of people on the Green at the start of the Games, frustrating the IOC and its sponsors, who spent millions of dollars on showcases.
Both issues cut to the heart of the kind of change many think the IOC should take to improve future Olympic Games — exerting more control over the local organizing committee in terms of how it puts on and executes the Games.
IOC Marketing Commission Chair Gerhard Heiberg suggested the organization was considering such measures. “I’m not saying we will change, but maybe we have learned a lesson here,” Heiberg said.
That change could focus on giving the IOC more control over local organizing committees and might extend to how the organization selects host cities in the future. Both could be on the table when the IOC’s executive committee convenes in December.
“We didn’t want to have sport involved in politics and vice versa,” Heiberg said. “This time it was more or less impossible to avoid some type of discussion. Should we change some of our thinking and some of our strategy there and take other factors into consideration when we plan our Games and look to the future?”
Anheuser-Busch’s Tony Ponturo said it’s been whispered for some time that the Olympics might be a dying sports property, but in his mind, Beijing’s strong ratings and unprecedented interest put that debate to rest.
“These Olympics are only going to breathe some life into the Olympic sponsorship side and, quite frankly, makes us glad we renewed with the USOC two months ago,” Ponturo said.
For the Olympics, that might be the lasting legacy of the 2008 Summer Games. In the eyes of many, these Games have rejuvenated the entire Olympic movement.
“The Games have continued to be magical, but what the Chinese have done is show the world how important these Games are to the planet,” said Rob Prazmark, longtime Olympic sponsorship salesman and the founder of 21 Marketing.
When final numbers are tallied, the IOC expects the Beijing Games to become the most viewed in the Olympics’ 112-year history. Ratings were not only strong in the U.S. but also in key regions such as Britain and India, which won its first individual gold medal.
The Olympics are set to build on that success with favorable Games in London, a worldwide media capital, and Vancouver, a hotbed for winter sports. Neither face major expectations or need to be a coming-out party. All they have to do is harness the momentum of the Beijing Games and make it their own.
That may be easier said than done.