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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

The London Olympics open later this month, at last, and with the games come new architecture - a stadium, an aquatic center and other structures. Four years ago, Beijing was showing off its new Olympic venues, but now the government is saddled with high maintenance costs. And the most famous facility, the Bird's Nest Stadium, has been repudiated by its designer. NPR's Lisa Lim reports on how Beijing's iconic structures risk becoming white elephants.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: To the bang of drums and the roar of the crowd, Beijing's Olympics opened with a boom. The spectacular opening ceremony was fitting for the spectacular Bird's Nest Stadium. Girdled with strips of concrete, it was an ambitious structure for a new superpower. But four years on, the Bird's Nest is looking tired and empty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Today, a smattering of mostly Chinese tour groups trickles though the stadium. Visitor numbers are in freefall, plummeting by half, year on year. The Bird's Nest cost $480 million to build and its upkeep costs $11 million a year.

Resting in the stands, Christian Lodz and Henne Zelle from Germany aren't too impressed.

CHRISTIAN LODZ: For me, it's just a huge concrete place. Personally I think, after four years, it looks a little bit shabby, I guess.

HENNE ZELLE: What I think is interesting is that it's just not used for anything useful. I mean, there's like a construction zone there, and it looks kind of dirty.

LIM: I'm now sitting in the stands looking at this endless expanse of empty seats - 91,000 of them to be exact. And that's the real problem: What to do with this iconic structure.

Since the Olympics, they've tried all kinds of things. These include using fake snow and man-made ski slopes in winter to turn it into a winter wonderland and even having a tightrope walker who spent two months living on a tightrope suspended above the Bird's Nest to make a world record.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Usain Bolt, sprinting ahead, winning by daylight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And setting a world record.

LIM: I'm now whizzing around the very track where Usain Bolt won his gold medal for the 100 meters. But I'm not on foot. I'm actually using a Segway, one of those weird two-wheeled vehicles. And this is one of the money making schemes that's being tried out at the Bird's Nest. For just over $20 for 15 minutes, tourists can whizz around the track on Segways. It's quite good fun, I have to say, but not many people are dong it and I'm not quite sure how to stop.

It's a bit different at the Water Cube where the swimming events were held. This has found a post-Olympic afterlife. It's been turned into a water park, where swimmers shoot down colorful tubes into pools of water. It's even launched a line of branded goods, including Water Cube alcohol, which sells at a cool $150 a bottle. But still, turning a profit isn't easy.

YANG QIYONG: (Through translator) It's extremely, extremely difficult not to lose money.

LIM: That's Yang Qiyong, the deputy manager of the Water Cube. He says it breaks even - just - but needs big government subsidies.

QIYONG: (Through translator) The government gave us subsidies of $1.5 million U.S. last year. Without that money, we couldn't hold important sports events. Some international competitions clearly lose lots of money. But in order to maintain our venue's image, we must host them.

LIM: And it's all about image.

WANG XIAOYU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: To Chinese visitors to the Bird's Nest, like Wang Xiaoyu, these buildings prove that China can hold its own, architecturally. How can you not feel proud, he says, beaming from ear to ear.

Even the audio tour sees the stadium in symbolic terms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Bird's Nest, as a symbol of the rise of the Chinese nation, will follow the nation's footsteps in its rise to glory.

LIM: But the Chinese artist who helped conceive of the Bird's Nest says he regrets having designed such a monument to China's Communist leaders. Ai Weiwei has never set foot inside the finished building. He told NPR the stadium has become entirely divorced from ordinary people.

AI WEIWEI: We love this building, but we don't like the content they have put in, you know, the kind of propaganda. They dissociated this building with citizens' celebration or happiness. It's not integrated with the city's life. So I told them I will never go to this building.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: The triumphant music pumped out into the Bird's Nest over video of cheering crowds, now falls into a vacuum. It was designed as a stage for China's coming-out party, to send a message to the world. But in this land of government-backed vanity projects, the empty, echoing stadium now sends a very different message.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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