Beijing puts on a show for the world
China commandeered the world stage Friday, celebrating its first-time role as Olympic host with a stunning display of pageantry and pyrotechnics to open a Summer Games unrivaled for its mix of problems and promise.
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.
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.
The games, said International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, “are a chance for the rest of the world to discover what China really is.”
The story presented in Friday’s ceremony 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, including 2,008 drummers in the opening sequence, all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often often ran afoul of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China’s problems.
The show, according to an advance 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 extravaganza was taped for broadcast 12 hours later in the United States.
A record 204 delegations were set to parade their athletes through the stadium — superstars such as basketball idols Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming, as well as plucky underdogs from Iraq, Afghanistan and other embattled lands. The nations were marching not in the traditional alphabetical order but in a sequence based on the number of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese. The exceptions were Greece, birthplace of the Olympics, which was given its traditional place at the start, and the 639-member Chinese team, which lined up last.
The American flag-bearer was 1500-meter runner Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who spent a decade of his youth in a refugee camp in Kenya. He’s a member of the Team Darfur coalition, representing athletes opposed to China’s support for Sudan. On Friday he avoided any criticism and said the Chinese “have been great putting all these things together.”