Reuters reports that the Chinese city of Harbin wants to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Its request to put in a bid must first be approved by China’s cabinet, the State Council. Even if permission is granted, China’s sports minister says that winning the bid would be “difficult” given stiff competition from better-known contenders like Geneva and Munich.
Nevertheless, I’m thrilled, and hope China’s leaders give Harbin the go ahead. It’s a fantastic city and would benefit immensely from hosting the Winter Olympics.
Harbin is located in the far northeast of China, near the border with Siberia. Founded by the Russians in 1898 as an important junction on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Harbin is famous for old colonial architecture, bitterly cold weather, and 150-proof grain alcohol. It hosts an incredible festival every winter featuring huge snow and ice sculptures, including life-size castles and churches. It’s also home to a Siberian tiger reserve where the “entertainment” includes feeding live chickens to the tigers.
When cities like Paris, New York, or London bid to host the Olympics, I have to wonder what they are thinking. Those cities already possess the attractions and facilities they need to bring in visitors, and the Olympics add nothing but security headaches and costly over-investment. The 2008 Beijing Games served as a big coming-out party for China, a focus for national pride–but for the city itself they were pretty much a bust. Beijing actually ended up attracting fewer visitors than normal last summer, and most of the venues now lie empty.
For Harbin, on the other hand, the Olympics would be a golden opportunity. The northeast, where the city is located, has run up on hard times. The region was home to many of China’s state-owned industries that collapsed in the 1990s, throwing millions of people out of work. It has struggled to develop replacement sources of income, such as winter tourism. The area’s ski resorts are promising but primitive, and poorly known even within China. Construction of new world-class recreation facilities, and the massive positive exposure that hosting the Olympics would bring, are just what Harbin needs to jump-start its future–and maybe even give those poor tigers and chickens a break. The benefits would endure long after the Games.
It’s true that Harbin may need help in preparing its bid. It lost previous bids to host next February’s 2010 Winter Olympics (to Vancouver) and the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games (to Innsbruck), probably due to inexperience. But if China’s central government put its weight behind the effort, there’s no doubt in my mind that Harbin could put together a more persuasive case.
The Olympics can be an excessive indulgence for already world-famous cities, or they can be a chance to introduce new and exciting places onto the world stage, and give struggling cities a shot at rejuvenation. Harbin is a great place to start.