Sunday, August 10, 2008
2,008 drummers from the People's Liberation Army beat drums in a tradition dating from 1600 BC
It was fitting that soldiers should play such a major role. They are everywhere here in Beijing, either to protect or intimidate the city's visitors, depending on your world view.
Bug-eyed with culture shock, we were sucked into the new Republic of Olympia - a £20billion world of majestic sporting architecture inside a giant compound, closed off from the rest of this vast and unknowable land. 'Welcome, World' ran the front-page headline in the China Daily and Confucius himself was rolled out to provide the main greeting: 'Friends have come from afar, how happy we are. All those within the four seas can be considered brothers.' This shameless rewriting of Chinese isolationism for a two-week carnival is all part of the hosts' wish to be an economic powerhouse while remaining a repressive one-party state. If you were a Beijing resident, you were either one of the lucky ones inside the 91,000-seat arena for an unveiling of startling beauty and drama, or cleared off the streets around the latticed structure where the cauldron for a new age was lit after the former gymnast Li Ning had run round the inside of the roof on a harness, and ignited a staircase of flame. It was a moment of sheer genius.
To say these Games would be a landmark in world politics was no idle claim. The ceremony proved it. Steven Spielberg had resigned as artistic director for opening night, but his dream-like visions were apparent in the brilliant orchestrations of the chief choreographer and acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou. Hollywood will study the DVD for years to come and plunder Beijing's visual tricks. Another sign, this, that China believes it can match any country in any department. This was a feast for the eyes cooked not from the books of ancient culture so much as the latest Microsoft manuals.
Sprays of fireworks shoot up from the roof of the stadium in a 20-second burst at the start of the ceremony The lustrous Silk Road unfurled on the floor of the Bird's Nest stadium in a dazzling series of light projections was intended to tell us that Chinese potency is rolling out across our world.
An anti-aircraft gun was trained on a night sky rendered infinitely more photogenic by nightfall. Smog, mist, call it what you will shows less embarrassingly in the dark. With a worldwide television audience estimated at 3billion, China's rulers were paranoid about portraying a poisoned city, suffocated by industrialisation. Representatives from London 2012 must have blanched at the scale of Chinese ambition. Will our high-stepping Pearly Kings and Queens match the gymnastic display by hundreds of Chinese squaddies in white silk outfits?
Can a modest Olympic Stadium at Stratford, East London, compete with the entrails-on-the-outside splendour of the Bird's Nest, which exploded with fireworks at 8.08pm on the eighth of the eighth, 2008? Over to Boris Johnson, when he arrives for the closing ceremony and London handover. Maybe the Tory back benches and a column in the Daily Telegraph were safer bets after all. The Princess Royal greeted members of Britain's 313-strong team, including the 14-year-old diver Tom Daley, set an ambitious target of 41 medals by a government desperate to recoup its £300million lottery investment. London will at least be less propaganda-ridden. The regeneration of the East End hardly equates to China trying to knock America off its perch as No 1 superpower. President Bush, who was present, finally joined the PR war with a belated appeal to the Chinese government to 'put its people first'.
Carnival of the academics: Scholars wearing the bamboo plumes and traditional gowns adopted by followers of Confucius perform movements reflecting his thoughts.
As a member of the Team Darfur coalition who have so angered the hosts with their protests over Chinese policy in Sudan, Lomong was never likely to draw a wave from President Hu Jintao.
Chinese athlete Li Ning, the tiny figure pictured on the right, lights the Olympic flame