China dazzles world with opening ceremonies

Saturday, August 9, 2008

BEIJING -- Once-reclusive China commandeered the world stage Friday, celebrating its first-time role as Olympic host with a stunning display of pyrotechnics and pageantry -- topped by the unworldly sight of a flying gymnast, traversing the heights of the stadium to light the flame and begin the Summer Games.

Now ascendant as a global power, China welcomed scores of world leaders to an opening ceremony watched by 91,000 people at the eye-catching National Stadium and a potential audience of 4 billion worldwide. It was depicted as the largest, costliest extravaganza in Olympic history, bookended by barrages of some 30,000 fireworks.

It ended in spectacular fashion, when China's first Olympic superstar, 1984 gymnastics triple gold medalist Li Ning, was hoisted by wires to the top of the stadium, circled the entire circumference as though he was spacewalking, then used his torch to send a torrent of flame spiraling upward to light the Olympic flame in a huge cauldron overlooking Beijing.

That was preceded by the parade of athletes, climaxing with the entry of the 639-strong Chinese team; It was led by flag-bearer and basketball idol Yao Ming alongside a 9-year-old schoolboy who survived May's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.

The welcome -- by a frenzied, chanting, flag-waving crowd that sought to cool itself with paper fans in the stifling heat -- was thunderous. And moments later, the crowd erupted again when President Hu Jintao declared the games open.

President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the glittering roster of notables who watched China make this bold declaration that it had arrived. Bush, rebuked by China after he raised human-rights concerns this week, is the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

Already an economic juggernaut, China is given a good chance of overtaking the U.S. atop the gold-medal standings with its legions of athletes trained intensely since childhood. One dramatic showdown will be in women's gymnastics, where the U.S. and Chinese teams are co-favorites; in the pool, Chinese divers and U.S. swimmers are expected to dominate.

The run-up to the games had epic story lines -- China investing $40 billion to build the needed infrastructure, reeling from the catastrophic earthquake in May, struggling right up to Friday to diminish Beijing's stubborn smog. China's detentions of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its economic ties to Sudan -- home of the war-torn Darfur region -- fueled relentless criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an Olympic boycott.

Second-guessed for awarding the games to Beijing, the International Olympic Committee stood firmly by its decision. It was time, the committee said, to bring the games to the homeland of 1.3 billion people, a fifth of humanity.

"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games," IOC President Jacques Rogge said in his speech. "Tonight, that dream comes true."

Rogge mentioned the Sichuan earthquake, saying the world was moved "by the great courage and solidarity of the Chinese people." And he exhorted the assembled athletes, as role models for the world's youth, to "reject doping and cheating."

Later, he would laud the pageant: "It was an unforgettable and moving ceremony that celebrated the imagination, originality and energy of the Beijing Games."

A cast of 15,000

The story presented in Friday's pageantry sought to distill 5,000 years of Chinese history -- featuring everything from the Great Wall to opera puppets to astronauts, and highlighting achievements in art, music and science. Roughly 15,000 people were in the cast, all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often ran afoul of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China's problems.

He produced some majestic and ethereal imagery -- at one point a huge, translucent globe emerged from the stadium floor, and acrobats floated magically around it to the accompaniment of the games' theme song, "One World, One Dream."

The show's script steered clear of modern politics -- there were no references to Chairman Mao and the class struggle, nor to the more recent conflicts and controversies. The ceremony was taped for broadcast 12 hours later in the United States.

A record 204 delegations paraded their athletes through the stadium -- superstars such as tennis great Roger Federer and basketball's Kobe Bryant, as well as plucky underdogs from Iraq, Afghanistan and other embattled lands.

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