If, by the wave of a magic wand, we had a squeaky clean bunch of people running the Commonwealth Games, would we be able to do a fabulous job? Would we be able to do what Beijing did with the Olympics? As the dirt flies around our Games preparation, this is the question that’s been bothering me. So I am digressing from the world of personal luxury to explore instead what would definitely be a luxury for the nation today: a beautifully organized Commonwealth Games.
Soaring: Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium is a symbol of the ambitious new China. Natalie Behring / Bloomberg
I was in Beijing a couple of months ago and right from landing at the swish Norman Foster-designed airport—built for the Olympics—it had me marvelling about China’s ability to put up spectacular buildings and enormous infrastructure networks with the ease of a child playing with Lego. As I drove to my hotel—on multi-lane, tree-lined, First World highways—the other part of my brain couldn’t help but compare and cringe about our inability to construct competently. Pictures of half-finished, debris-strewn Commonwealth Games sites and the dug out, tangled up roads went through my head.
Corruption is the game spoiler in India—that’s the broad tune we have been humming collectively as a nation, as we watch overpriced treadmills and toilet paper turn into mascots of greed gone berserk. But I have been wondering how China, which too has record levels of corruption, manages to host a magnificent Olympic Games, and in the process build iconic structures such as the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. China and India are neck and neck on corruption measures—Transparency International ranks China at No. 79 and India at No. 84, with a Corruption Perception Index score of 3.6 and 3.4 respectively. Chinese politicians and bureaucrats are up to the same hanky-panky as ours, and evidently to the same shameful extent.
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Taking corruption out of the running will be a blessing—and a much-needed moral victory—but that in itself won’t deliver a dazzler of a show. China is a winner, despite endemic corruption, because it has three essential enablers that we don’t—it aims higher, it implements faster, and it plays stronger.
China has “satellite vision” whereas we tend to have “in the well” vision. China scans the world to see what is “best” and then sets out to better it. Take the high-speed train network that it is putting in place—when it is finished in 2020 it will be the world’s largest, fastest, and most technologically sophisticated. I had a taste of it: I took the train from Beijing to Tianjin (something like Mumbai to Pune)—also built ahead of the Olympics—and sat in wonder as the speed reached 300-plus kmph, zipping through the 117km distance in half an hour flat. What was equally compelling was the ease with which huge numbers of passengers were processed—it felt like an enormous airport, run so efficiently that even without speaking a word of Chinese I had an incredibly smooth experience right from buying the ticket in Beijing to getting into a taxi at the other end in Tianjin.
The stadiums built for the Olympics are another example of China’s better-than-the-best mindset. The Bird’s Nest isn’t just another stadium—it is a masterpiece on a global scale, utterly modern and unmistakably Chinese at the same time, an instant icon that always makes me smile. The Beijing Water Cube is another stunner. The best architects in the world put in their best effort for the Chinese Olympic structures—Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron won the prestigious Lubetkin award for the Bird’s Nest; Australian firm PTW Architects (for the Water Cube) and Foster and Partners (for the Beijing airport) were finalists for the same award. Contrast this to what we have made for the Commonwealth Games—even if you set aside the implementation snafus, the vision itself is limited, the aim being simply to have something better than what we had before. How can you dazzle when you aim so low?
This is probably our greatest pain point and China’s shining strength. While our Games preparation is in the hopeless scramble phase, the Chinese were so far ahead of schedule with their Olympic preparations that the International Olympic Committee had to urge them to take it easy. “We had to persuade the Chinese to slow down on their schedule,” Kevan Gosper, vice-chairman of the Olympic Coordination Commission, was quoted as saying in October 2006. Despite the slowdown, the Water Cube was delivered and tested with a national event in January 2008, a good six months before the Olympics start date. The Bird’s Nest was inaugurated in June 2008. All 31 games venues were finished in good time, even the polluted skies of Beijing were cleaned up, and the city itself was dressed up like a bride for her wedding.
It is finally about the games, the performance of the players, that’s what gets a nation’s pulse racing. While we struggle to put an occasional athlete on the world map, China has steadfastly built its sporting prowess with remarkable results. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, China ranked 11th with 28 medals; four years later at Barcelona it pole-vaulted to No. 4 with 54 medals; at Sydney it was up to No. 3, bagging 58 medals, 28 of them gold; at Athens it advanced to No. 2, 63 medals in its kitty, 32 gold; and then it put on a breathtaking show on home turf: a haul of 51 gold medals, the highest in the Games, although its total medal tally of 100 was behind the US’ 110. China can clearly build more than physical infrastructure.
Is China perfect? Not by a long shot—the recent 10-day traffic jam near Beijing is a case in point. It struggles with developmental issues just like us, but by using the “aim higher, implement faster, play stronger” principle, it has managed to get streets ahead.
Closer home, the Indian Premier League is a vivid example of the aim-higher-implement-faster-play- stronger principle. Was the IPL a spectacular show? Yes. Was it clean? Doesn’t seem so.
Exactly my point—killing corruption is necessary, but not sufficient. Faster, higher, stronger—the Olympic motto—that’s what we really need to embrace. And build an India that we can truly be proud of.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury. Write to Radha at firstname.lastname@example.org