In light of exorbitant costs and problematic legacies, the Olympic Games’ dubbing as the 'Greatest Show on Earth' continues to come under global scrutiny at each four-year turn. However, even as we near the ten-year mark since Beijing’s world-wowing Summer Games, it’s still tough to deny such a title, such was the extravagance and buzz that surrounded the two-week bonanza.
Ever since the Olympic flame was snuffed out though, the Beijing powers-that-be have fumbled to find ways to keep the crowds coming back to its grand National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest). The show pony wheeled out for a princely 3.4 billion RMB has now become a bit of a white elephant, and one that reportedly costs upwards of 150 million RMB a year to operate and illuminate. While the latest attempt to keep the dust from settling might not go by the catchiest of names – Top Wonder of Bird’s Nest Air Corridor
– it does offer a unique opportunity to summit one of Beijing’s modern architectural marvels.
It’s not an entirely new activity – a 230-metre walkway was accessible since 2013 – but the Top Wonder recently underwent a renovation that saw its tracks extended to around a kilometre in length, covering half the stadium’s roof and adding several new viewing platforms. It reopened to the public in early February.
After picking up your tickets (80RMB from the kiosk found between Gates C and D), you’re essentially on your own here; this is a self-guided tour, and signposting certainly could be better, but you have an access-most-areas pass, which allows you to take a perch in all three tiers of the stadium and freely wander the often deserted hallways encircling it.
To reach the roof you’ll need to look out for the wonderfully named 'Love Elevator' and take it to the fifth floor, where you’ll pass through a museum of assorted Olympic artefacts. From there, head towards the southern point of the stadium and, another lift ride later, you’ll emerge in the upper echelons of its steely skeleton, an impressive tangling of intertwining beams, wiring and walkways.
From the top, the quality of vista is entirely dependent on the mercy of the smog lords; on a clear day,
the views towards the western mountains and back along the city’s Central Axis are simply spectacular, though air pollution can limit your scope to the resplendent Fourth Ring Road.
The stadium itself is photogenic spectacle enough, both across its jagged sloping rooftop and down into the cavernous arena below. On closer inspection, the signs of nine years of wear, tear and lack of care are visible, with the odd rusty cable, truss or track used for cameras and flying stage stunts looking a little unloved, while a layer of dust has collected on its plastic membrane. That shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the Top Wonder though, as it remains a pleasant and safe way to get high above Beijing.
Legacy presents the single biggest challenge for Olympic organisers, designers and urban planners who wish to justify their lavish spending. Indeed, dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who served as an artistic consultant for the National Stadium’s futuristic concept, has long spoken of his distaste for the many excesses of the games and regret at his involvement.
Recently, a series of images surfaced online showing how many of Rio de Janeiro’s now-redundant venues have already fallen into a decrepit state of disuse, just as former host cities the world over bear their hollow monuments to games past.
Here at the Bird’s Nest, the official songs of the 2008 games still play and eerily echo throughout its vast
halls, while the frayed murals and weary plastic mascots remain, yet it’s still hard to imagine a time
when 90,000 spectators would have excitedly packed in. All things considered though, it has to be said
that Beijing is in many respects doing a comparatively decent job of keeping the spirit of the Games
alive, with the Olympic Park still welcoming thousands of tourists a day from far and wide.
The Top Wonder is unlikely to be the long-term solution that stadium bosses must desire, and its detractors may label it as just another desperate bid to squeeze the last from the lucrative Olympic toothpaste tube, but this rooftop ramble has some undeniably impressive views, and makes for a unique day out. After all, it’s not every day you get to walk on top of one of the world’s most iconic stadiums.