Thrift campaign turns National Games into Hunger Games

The Asian Youth Games, scheduled for August 16-24 in Nanjing and closing just a week before China’s 12th National Games kick off, came up with a fantastic way of saving money: a virtual torch relay. The National Games, meanwhile, have gone a different route, getting rid of the excess celebrations, but also reducing the number of competitors and even eliminating two sports.

ImageLast week’s announcement that the budget for the Games would be cut by 78% makes for a great headline, but sticking to that new budget is another thing entirely. Chinese officials are among the best in the world when it comes to finding financial loopholes (spending off the books etc), and we’ll probably never know the true figures. The 2008 Beijing Olympics budget figures were notoriously opaque (I’ve seen estimates ranging from $3 billion all the way to an eye-watering $65 billion) and Guangzhou reportedly fell more than $30 billion into debt after wildly overspending on the 2010 Asian Games.

Here is this week’s Sports Talk column:

Big international events hosted by China in recent years have all been about “bigger and better”. But in these times of economic uncertainty, organizers of the 12th National Games, to be held in the northeastern city of Shenyang from August 31-September, have reduced their budget by a staggering 78 percent, from $590 million down to just $130 million.

Among the changes: the number of venues has been trimmed from 129 to 117, with only 10 new stadiums, rather than the original 25 – though the construction budget appears to be in addition to the $130 million; no goodie bags or banquets for foreign guests, whose number has been halved; no conferences or exhibitions held in tandem with the Games; and, most surprisingly, no fireworks.

shenyang_civic_sports_center-emergent_tom_wiscombe_03Gunpowder, as every child in China knows, is one of the country’s most famous inventions, but, in line with an edict from the very top, costs must be cut at all levels, and an opening and closing during daylight hours for the first time will see the ceremony budget slashed by 90%.

All of this is surely a good a thing, though more could be done: 117 venues still seems an extraordinarily high number, and there’s no good reason why any foreign dignitaries need to be in attendance.

While it is refreshing that Games organizers are proudly talking about trimming the fat instead of boasting about banquets, the measures taken by the organizers are clearly more of necessity than desire, according to Jeff Ruffolo, a sports marketing expert who worked for the organizing committees of both the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Asian Games.

“When it comes to Games time, will either the athletes or the spectators be shortchanged?” Ruffolo asks. “That remains to be seen,” he concludes, but already the answers are appearing.

While spectators have been boosted by the news that 85% of tickets will go for $16 or less, and 500,000 tickets will be given away to those deemed worthy, the outlook for athletes is less rosy. 1,500 athletes will be cut as the number of teams falls from 48 to 36, and two of the 31 sports – as yet unnamed – will be eliminated.

Imagine training all your life, qualifying for the National Games, and then being told just weeks ahead beforehand that your sport is being cut. Much better, instead, to get rid of all the foreign guests, and let the athletes take their rightful place on the track.

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