Philip Barker

This week, International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president Yu Zaiqing unveiled a new bust of President Thomas Bach at the Dongsi Olympic Community Park in the heart of Beijing.

It takes its place alongside busts of Bach's predecessors Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jacques Rogge and a statue of Pierre de Coubertin, installed to celebrate the 2008 Olympics.

For many the new addition is a further symbol of a close relationship between the Chinese authorities and the IOC.

When the 2008 Games took place in Beijing, they effectively set the seal on the first three decades since mainland China returned to the Olympic fold.

The IOC concluded that the Games were "by almost every measure, an indisputable success."

In that summer fortnight, American swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals, a feat never before accomplished at a single Olympic Games. Beijing 2008 also conferred superstar status on Usain Bolt.

According to IOC figures, 94 percent of all households in China were said to have watched at least some of the Games. The IOC further claimed the Games "provided intangible benefits that can lead to further social economic progress and that unprecedented international attention highlighted its strengths as well as its shortcomings."

It was those very shortcomings which, as in 2022, came under most scrutiny in the build-up to the Games. The international Torch Relay intended as a "Journey of Harmony" was beset by protests against the actions of the Chinese Government in Tibet, a sequence of events echoed when Beijing's 2022 Relay began last October. 

The Bird's Nest is due to host the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony, as it did for Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images
The Bird's Nest is due to host the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony, as it did for Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images

In 2008, China made great efforts to show its best face to the world. It was claimed that "the Games raised environmental standards." It was reported that 60,000 coal-burning boilers were upgraded.

There still remained a clear and present danger on the roads. Where once, cyclists had dominated the traffic, the streets had become full of cars which made Beijing’s air quality a major concern.

It was claimed that ¥140 billion($20.5 billion/£15.1 billion/€18.1 billion) was invested in improving it and that three million cars were taken off the roads during the time of the Games.

Even so, American cyclists Bobby Lea, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Mike Friedman were criticised when they emerged from Beijing airport because they were wearing facemasks.

"Obviously we have to balance their right to do what they want with how those actions are perceived," Jim Scherr, chief executive of what was then the United States Olympic Committee, said. "You never want to go to someone's house and cause embarrassment, and in this case I think they did."

Scherr revealed that apologies had been written to the Beijing organisers, though it later emerged that some 200 other team members had also been issued with face masks at the request of national governing bodies in the US.

In 2022, not wearing a mask would be likely to "cause embarrassment" at the very least.

Face coverings will be commonplace in 2022 ©Getty Images
Face coverings will be commonplace in 2022 ©Getty Images

In 2008, there was no COVID crisis. It made it possible for Olympic visitors to explore the city. "Dancing Beijing", the Games logo, was everywhere.

It was particularly prominent in Tiananmen Square, where an impressive giant floral display had been laid out with representations of each sport and even a model of the National Stadium. Looking out across the square there was a huge countdown clock and the words "One World, One Dream" - the official motto of the Games.

Some municipalities also decorated their street furniture. Lamp posts and cycle ways were decorated in the colours of the Olympic rings.

Official decorations were one thing, but even in the backstreets, unofficial improvised versions of the rings appeared at the front of buildings and blank walls had been decorated with the Beijing Mascots, known as "The Fuwa" or "Friendlies".

Though few taxi drivers spoke English, many were equipped with translation gadgets which at the time were something new. They lacked the world weariness of some other places.

The IOC claimed that the Games had encouraged physical activity. "Square dancing" was a common sight and many of those who participated were of retirement age.

They seemed to gather everywhere there was some spare ground and some even used the grass verges or the central reservation on some roads to take part.

Barriers protecting cycle lanes were painted to resemble Olympic rings ©Philip Barker
Barriers protecting cycle lanes were painted to resemble Olympic rings ©Philip Barker

Local municipalities had posted notices for the Games advising "Learn foreign etiquette, be polite hosts".

"If we present ourselves to be hospitable, considerate and polite, we will make friends everywhere in the world which will help with the development of the Chinese nation."

Spectators were also encouraged to behave in the correct manner in stadiums.

"We should from now on learn the knowledge of various kinds of sports and games and the etiquette of watching so we can better appreciate those Games, knowing when, why and how to applaud."

Spectators were prompted to applaud by an image of hands on the scoreboard.

These sometimes suggested that spectators "do a Mexican wave".

The National stadium was immediately nicknamed the "Bird's Nest". It was not hard to see why.

It stood at the centre of the Olympic Green, a huge park created specially for the Games.

The impressive Aquatics Centre, known to all as the "Water Cube", stood nearby. By night the panels of the building changed colour. Inside it was equally as impressive. In 2022 it will be reincarnated as the "Ice Cube" for curling.

"Square dancing" was a common sight during the Beijing 2008 Olympics ©Philip Barker
"Square dancing" was a common sight during the Beijing 2008 Olympics ©Philip Barker

The 2022 Flame has already visited the Ling Long Pagoda television tower which commands stunning views of the park, as you would expect for the television companies which occupied it.

Clearly visible from the park was the architecturally remarkable Panju Plaza, a super-luxury hotel that was said to rate seven stars, though it was said that many communities had been relocated in order to make way for the Olympic development.

In 2008, there sometimes seemed to be as many people outside, looking in on the Olympic Green. Even without tickets, many came to watch the fireworks on opening night.

One man arrived with a bicycle which had an elaborate model of the Bird's Nest on the pannier.

Nearby, an artist displayed almost life-size paintings of football stars including one of David Beckham.

Rumours circulated that Beckham was actually coming to Beijing causing great excitement, particularly among the young volunteers at the Games.

Beckham did indeed come. He appeared on top of a London bus as part of the handover to London 2012 at the closing of the Games.

The Friendlies were an ever-present sight in Beijing in 2008 ©Getty Images
The Friendlies were an ever-present sight in Beijing in 2008 ©Getty Images

When the Flame died, United Nations special advisor Wilfried Lemke insisted that the Games "provided a unique platform for the social progress of the Chinese people and that China demonstrated friendship, leadership and harmony which will continue to build bridges."

There have been many who doubted those words. Academics have suggested that progress has not been made.

It will certainly be more difficult to build bridges this time. As with Tokyo, no tickets will be on sale to the local public as a result of the "current grave and complicated situation" of COVID-19.

As with Tokyo last year, it seems hard on ordinary people who through no fault of their own will be denied the chance to experience the Olympics first-hand.

In 2008 the words of the ancient Chinese writer Confucius were displayed on many walls.

"Happy we are to meet Friends from afar." In 2022, it will have a double meaning.