China's Olympic Winter Wonderland

If Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt were to return to the Bird's Nest in Beijing today, he'd better bring a pair of skates. There's a mountain in the arena and the ground is covered with ice and snow.

Is China preparing for the 2010 Winter Olympics?

No. It's just trying to make some money by attracting visitors to the Beijing National Stadium.

The "Happy Snow and Ice Season" kicked off last weekend. The first thing you notice once inside the stadium is a 65-foot high snow mountain. It serves as the backdrop for a snow stage on which rock concerts will be held during the Christmas and the Chinese New Year periods.

Ten snow machines have been working 24 hours nonstop since Dec. 10, pumping out 25,000 tons of artificial snow and creating a 3-foot-thick layer of manmade snow to cover the 68,000 square yards of stadium floor, which offers ski and snow board slopes, skating rinks and plenty of snow sculptures.

The winter wonderland doesn't come cheap, however. About $7.3 million has been spent to bring about and maintain the snowy transformation.

To cover the cost, organizers hope to attract some about 20,000 visitors a day. But with the winter chill and tickets at a pricey $26, that goal may be too optimistic.

Only 6,000 visitors showed up over the weekend, far fewer than the organizers' expectations, according to Bird's Nest officials.

But those who came enjoyed it. "It's a great idea," said Wei Shen, who came with his wife and his 4-year-old son, "Now we don't have to go far to really have some winter fun."

Yan Yiling, a 24-year-old girl visiting from the south of the country, said, "I've never seen this much snow before. The Bird's Nest represents our country and the snow will help bring more visitors."

Since its dazzling debut in the the summer of 2008, the Bird's Nest hasn't been of much use.

In the beginning, it was not an issue. The stadium simply fed itself financially. People swarmed in to admire its spectacular architecture and relive the glory of Beijing Olympic Games.

At its peak, the stadium would receive up to 50,000 visitors every day, each paying the $7 entrance fee just to walk on the stadium floor. That used to contribute 70 percent of the stadium's total revenue. But when the Olympic fever faded away, visitors shrank to a few thousand a day.

Bird's Nest Facing Financial Woes

Since then, the monster stadium has experimented with a wide range of commercial activities, including one concert by Spanish singer Placido Domingo in May, another by Hong Kong star Jackie Chan in June, an Italian Super Cup football match in August, an eight-day run of Puccini's opera "Turandot" in October, and a racing show between Formula One stars Michael Schumacher and Jensen Button in November.

And now the snow festival, the latest visitor-boosting attempt, which will last for two months.

But these one-off schemes do little to improve the economic situation facing the Bird's Nest, which cost about $527 million to build and now costs the Chinese government about $30,000 a day to maintain.

"To sustain growth in the future, the Bird's Nest should create a long-term establishment similar to the Super Bowl in the United States," Wei Jizhong, a senior consultant to the Beijing Olympic organizers, told the state-run China Daily after a news conference on the snow festival.

But in Beijing, a city that doesn't have a regular major sports tournament, there's no easy way out.

"We are racking our brains almost every day," Zhou Bin, the National Stadium's director of research and development, told China Daily last month.

CITIC Investment Holdings, the original management behind the Bird's Nest, struggled with its post-Olympic operations. It eventually handed the hot potato back to the government 12 months into its 30-year contract.

It is a headache shared by almost all Olympic host cities. When the Olympic flame leaves town, the Olympic stadiums become money-draining white elephants. Beijing is no exception.

But for the moment, the snowy Bird's Nest is still the hot topic in town. Visitors, especially children, are excited about the idea of skiing in the stadium.

Kids run around in snow sculptures, slide down ice slopes, build snowmen and throw snowballs at each other.

For them, the snowy Bird's Nest is just another playground; a somewhat bigger one.