An Olympic opening: awesome and gigantic

Performers take part in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium.
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Performers take part in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium.

BEIJING – Sarkozy was there. Putin was there. Karzai was there. Bush was there.

It was such a big deal even Kobe and LeBron were there.

They call this a sporting event. But we know it is more than that when 100 of the world’s leaders blessed China’s Olympics Friday night, Beijing time, surrounded by 90,000 others, mostly Chinese, who saw an oft-times serious opening ceremonies.

There were high production values. Some mindblowing acrobatics and special effects. A cast of 14,000.

And the fireworks were real swell, too.

There’s no intention here to ruin anything for any reader who has plans to watch the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies on television tonight. But I can point out some moments not to miss.

First, the National Stadium or “Bird’s Nest” is a star of the show. A metallic bundle of sticks, the facility is not only a stage but a lighting backdrop and a partner in much of the extravaganza.

The ultimate lighting of the Olympic flame relies on the stadium’s construction. Even if you think these rituals are pretentious, check out the entertainment of it all. By the way, the Bird’s Nest was designed by the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron, the same crew that helped design the new Walker Art Center.

‘Coming out party’
Oh, about 25 minutes into the four-hour ceremony, there is a trick with some undulating tiles, too. Watch it closely. I was in the stadium and was stunned by what I saw.

A bit later, there’s a rowing bit, with hundreds of performers rotating giant oars. There’s also dancers who transform their bodies into writing utensils to scrawl Chinese characters onto a scroll on the floor of the massive stadium.

Observers have called these Olympics China’s “coming out party.” But some of the dancing, drumming and singing turned into a sort of Commie Bar Mitzvah.

The cultural stuff — which has become a basic theme of opening ceremonies over the past couple decades — served to flatten out any political connotations. There was wide anticipation among the world’s media that some athletes would use the Opening as a way to register grievances against China’s human rights or foreign policies. But no such protests materialized.

Of the 204 nations’ sports teams that marched into the Bird’s Nest, it sounded as if Hong Kong (now part of China, but still a separate Olympic Committee), Taiwan and North Korea received the biggest ovations…besides China’s team, of course, which marched into the stadium last.

The crowd rose to its feet and began chanting, “Chi-na! Chi-na!”

NBA basketball star and national hero Yao Ming led the Chinese national team. As he moved past where President Hu Jintao was seated, a little boy was brought to the 7-foot-6 giant. The boy was a survivor of the May earthquake in Sichuan Province. Yao circled the stadium with the Chinese flag and the cute little kid. The image will surely grace every front page in China tomorrow. Yao rhymes with Mao, by the way, and a few cursory walks around Beijing reveal that Yao is more of an icon these days than Mao.

Made for TV
A couple of things: Security was stepped up for the event. Journalists were required to go through two rounds of metal detection. Laptops were taken out of bags and their lids opened. Water bottles could be brought into the wide security zone, but one had to drink some of it in front of a guard to ensure it was drinkable and not the stuff of the unthinkable.

If there was one chilly moment, it came when Liu Qi, the head of the Beijing Organizing Committee, spoke to the crowd. In his speech, almost defiantly, it seemed, Liu said, “The Chinese government and people have fulfilled each and every commitment they made to the international community, and have spared no effort in preparing for the Games by firmly adopting the concepts of ‘Green Olympics, High-Tech Olympics and the People’s Olympics.'”

Of course, on matters of media censorship alone, that statement was false.

Still, organizers did not miss any little detail. On a night when the temperature remained in the high 80s and humidity so stifling a person’s eyeballs were sweating, here’s what they remembered: blowing machines allowed the bold red Chinese flag to flutter firmly in the sky. But for those wind machines, the flag would have laid limp.

For TV — and this ceremony was made-for-TV — the flag appeared to be blowing in a cool summer breeze. Not so. It was artificially stiffened.

But this is so: China’s awesome and gigantic people power, its discipline and organization shined through Friday night.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Micah Sittig on 08/08/2008 - 10:56 pm.

    > Still, organizers did not miss any little detail.

    I noticed that the political attendees all carried similar fans. Do you know if they were provided/on sale/self-brought?

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