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For China officials, Beijing's Olympic 'white elephants' were worth it

© David Gray / Reuters / Reuters, file

A boat sails past an unmaintained jetty at the deserted former venue for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games rowing competition, located on the outskirts of Beijing, on March 27, 2012.

Four years on from the Beijing Olympics, some of the Games venues are certainly white elephants.

But no one should underestimate the prestige factor for China's Communist Party government in terms of justifying the construction.

The construction of these structures allowed China to show that it could mobilize its resources and pull off -- as they often point out -- a flawless Games. Just before London 2012 began, the People's Daily newspaper said the Beijing Games were generally regarded as the best ever. 

In that sense, the Games and the stadiums represent the best and worst of the Communist Party's relationship with the people and the direction it's taking for the future. 

The famous Bird's Nest stadium, built at a cost of about $500 million, usually has very healthy crowds of people around it and is in pretty good shape.

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However, it has failed to attract a major sports team and has only hosted a few music concerts, a snowboard competition and a couple of friendly soccer competitions, involving top sides like Arsenal and Manchester City from England and Italy's Juventus and Napoli, who play this Saturday.

Water-slide popular
Many of the sites get a lot of visitors, though the numbers are said to be dipping.

The Water Cube has been one of the more successful venues since 2008. The popularity of a water-slide park built inside the Cube is reflected in its high prices. It also host concerts and other events periodically inside.

As I understand it, the Water Cube isn't making money, but it isn't losing too much compared to other sites.

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I visited the Olympic rowing site two months ago. While the park was quiet, Olympic athletes were training there and there were also a couple of corporate and high school student groups who had rented the place out to learn how to dragonboat race for team-building purposes.

Much of the site is blocked off, but they have adapted it since the Olympics ended, adding a water park for kids and tricycles for people to ride around the park.

The Olympic basketball venue was one of the few that actually successfully found a sponsor, Mastercard, and it has held a fair amount of events like NBA exhibition games every year.

Also many of the major Chinese pop bands and Western acts tend to hold their shows there.

So some of the venues are still performing a useful purpose and, even if others have become white elephants, for China's rulers, it was worth it.