The ceremony celebrated China’s young but ambitious manned space program, with performers portraying taikonauts floating above the field on wires, while a massive globe rose out of the stadium floor. On a screen that encircled the top of the stadium were projected images of the other planets of the solar system, while the globe was used to represent first the Earth, and then the Sun. Acrobats tethered to different levels of the globe by wires ran laps around the outside, while on top Sarah Brightman and a Chinese pop star sang a duet, each singing a verse in English and Chinese. Apparently Sarah Brightman is very popular in China. This is just one of the numerous obstacles our two cultures must overcome in order to reach a peaceful and stable coexistence.
Rows and rows of gigantic wooden printing blocks emerged from beneath the floor and raised and lowered in precise order, imitating waves, then the concentric circles flowing outward from a drop of water, then in rhythm to music, then several times to form the Chinese symbol for harmony. The wood blocks were shifted up and down with such precision, I was certain it had been accomplished by some computer controlled mechanical procedure, but at the end of the routine the top of every block flipped open and up stood a person, smiling and waving. It, like everything else that night, had been accomplished by hand.
Another small army of dancers marched out carrying oars painted with images of ships, while film of the crashing sea was projected onto the great screen encircling the stadium.
Following the raising of the flag of China was the Parade of Nations — the athletes of all 204 participating countries filed into the stadium one at a time, their order of entry determined by how many strokes comprised their nation’s representative symbol on the Chinese alphabet. Iraq marched out near the middle, followed immediately by Iran, whose small delegation included three women, their heads — but not their faces — wrapped in white scarves. Not long after came the delegation of our great ally Saudi Arabia, among whose athletes were — as ever — no women at all. Commentators Bob Costas and Matt Lauer reminded us that Saudi Arabian women were also not permitted to drive, or to go out in public unescorted without the written permission of their father or husband.
The American delegation entered near the end, to thunderous applause from the crowd, an ovation dwarfed shortly by that showered upon the Chinese faction. The Chinese Olympians entered, led by flag-bearer Yao Ming, to an ecstatic reception. The roar the Chinese threw up for their athletes was impressive when I saw it on TV; live and in person, it must have been absolutely deafening. Imagine the pride of these people, their ancient country hosting its first Olympic games. I think it’s an honor unworthy of the paranoid, absolutist government, but richly deserved by the throngs of long-suffering Chinese, who can enjoy being the envy of the world for at least a few weeks.
Then there was the traditional opening of the games, the raising of the Olympic flag, and finally the lighting of the Olympic Flame. The torch was carried into the stadium and passed down the line to eight different runners. The final torchbearer, a former Chinese Olympian who had won multiple medals in China’s first post-communist games, the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, was lifted on wires up to the very top of the stadium. He swung down into a horizontal orientation and began to run, pulled by the wires, all along the entire circumference of the stadium, while on the massive screen behind him was projected an unfurling scroll. When he had taken a lap around the entire stadium, over the heads of everyone there, he touched his torch to a fuse which carried the flame up a spiral to ignite the cauldron at the top. It was the most audacious and spectacular lighting of the torch in history, and the same can be said for the opening ceremonies as a whole. As an artistic and cultural presentation, it was an unprecedented triumph. Whoever’s in charge of planning the event for London in 2012 had better start from scratch, if they hope to top this. It was extraordinary . . .
. . . but not without its eyebrow-raising moments. If you went in looking for commie propaganda, I’m sure you found plenty of stuff you could interpret that way. Perhaps the fireworks footprints were meant to evoke the well known communist and fascist love of marching; maybe all those mobs of performers moving in precise order, with absolute precision were meant to demonstrate the need of the individual to turn himself over to the will of the state in order to accomplish great things. But those would just be matters of interpretation, and I’m willing to give the Chinese the benefit of the doubt. There were two moments during the opening ceremonies last night, however, that left no room for interpretation. Both involved the raising of flags, and brigades of jackbooted, goose-stepping troops.
The first, and most disturbing, was the raising of the Chinese flag. A group of adorable, smiling little children carried the humongous flag out onto the field and handed it over to those jackbooted goose-steppers I mentioned two sentences ago. The troops then made their way, stiffly and exactly, over to the pole and raised the flag. This scene repeated itself toward the end of the night with the raising of the Olympic flag, but didn’t include a group of kindergarteners giving way to the phalanx of storm troopers, and thus didn’t freak me out quite as much. One of the commentators suggested that this represented the belief that it was the state which guaranteed the future of those children. Even with all the hardships faced by the Chinese in their long and turbulent history — ethnic conflicts, invasion from neighbors, overpopulation, environmental catastrophes — I have to wonder how many of them would trust their children’s futures to an often brutal communist oligarchy if they had any say in the matter.
So the cameo by the Chinese SS creeped me out. What a lovely way for the government to say to the people, “Enjoy the show and congratulations, but don’t forget that we can kill you whenever we feel like it.” I also found it a smidgeon hypocritical of them to declare these to be the green Olympics, when it’s well known that China has courted environmental disaster in its preparations for the games, diverting water used to irrigate crops in order to fill dry riverbeds for rowing events and operate decorative fountains in the Olympic village, and holding the bulk of the events in their notoriously polluted capital city.
At least the fireworks showed up brilliantly against all that smog.