A Spectacular Opening to the 29th Olympiad

Post reporter Amy Shipley talks about the extravagant ceremony that opened the 2008 Summer Games at the National Stadium in Beijing.
By Edward Cody, Maureen Fan and Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 9, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 9 -- They did it.

After seven years of meticulous preparation, the Chinese opened the 2008 Summer Olympics, celebrating 5,000 years of history and exulting in their newly recovered status as a world power. They did it with a smoothly choreographed extravaganza of fireworks and pageantry, performed before 91,000 carefully screened spectators and a worldwide television audience estimated at as many as 4 billion.

"We were expecting something big, and they definitely delivered," said Adam Duvendeck, a cyclist on the U.S. team from Santa Barbara, Calif.

Beijing's summer heat and humidity were oppressive, but its pollution was bearable, and the show was not rained out. There were no attacks, but there were threats. Draconian security deployments kept protesters at bay, and more than 80 government leaders from around the world showed up to pay their respects.

"Beijing, you are host to the present and gateway to the future," Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said before Chinese President Hu Jintao officially declared the Games open.

Directed by Zhang Yimou, director of "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero," the Opening Ceremonies began with the thunderous pounding of 2,008 ancient drums. They concluded with a dramatic lighting of the Olympic Flame by former gymnast Li Ning, a six-time gold medalist, who was hoisted into the air on hidden cables and transported around the circumference of the top of the National Stadium.

In between, thousands of performers took spectators on an elaborate journey through this country's rich history, depicting Chinese inventions such as the compass, gunpowder, paper and movable type, as well as aspects of traditional culture, including martial arts and musical instruments. The grandiose ceremony lasted for more than four hours.

"On the one hand, they praised China's ancient culture, and on the other hand they showed modern China. Together those things combine to show the dream of a Chinese empire," said Zhu Dake, a well-known writer and social commentator, who watched the ceremonies on television. "This is a very good opportunity to show Chinese strength to Westerners. The government wants to show that they've exceeded all the previous Olympics."

Over the next two weeks, plenty could still go wrong for organizers of the Games. But on Friday at least, barely anything did.

The worst-case scenarios appeared to have been prevented by a combination of luck and Chinese authorities' own efforts. They mounted an all-out campaign to control the weather -- planting chemicals in the sky to control rainfall-- and buttoned down the city with a massive police presence.

In the most vivid demonstration of luck, a soft summer rain started falling early Saturday morning, about 10 minutes after the ceremonies came to a close with a massive fireworks barrage.

With the Opening Ceremonies behind them, Chinese turned to the first full day of competition.

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