A Spectacular Opening to the 29th Olympiad

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.

Chinese, who placed third in the medal count in 2000 in Sydney and second in 2004 in Athens, are hoping to end the Games with the largest share of medals, dramatizing their new status in the world. Many were looking forward -- with some trepidation -- to a game scheduled Sunday between the U.S. and Chinese basketball teams.

President Bush, who attended the Opening Ceremonies, has said that game is high on his agenda as well. After attending a luncheon Friday hosted by Hu for visiting dignitaries, Bush greeted U.S. Olympic competitors for a pre-Games pep talk.

"There are going to be a lot of people pulling for you," he said. "We want you to win as many golds as you can."

To enhance security and prevent protests, an estimated 100,000 police and soldiers were deployed around the country Friday. Their sometimes heavy-handed measures drew complaints from foreigners unaccustomed to the no-nonsense attitude of law enforcement personnel in China.

"This is not like Athens, where you could go anywhere and take photos of everything," said Truls Mansson, 42, who attended those 2004 Games in Greece as well as the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. "It's frustrating sometimes. The week before, it's been 'stop here,' 'stop here,' 'don't go there.' "

Chinese security officials had reason to be nervous. The Japanese Transport Ministry said an Air China passenger jet was forced to make an emergency return to Japan because an anonymous bomb threat was e-mailed to the airline soon after the plane had taken off for Beijing, according to the Associated Press. Four other flights were delayed because of the threat.

A little-known group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, warned in a video distributed earlier this week that Muslims should not attend the Olympic Games or travel in vehicles used by Chinese because of the danger of an attack. It contained graphics showing the Beijing Olympic logo in flames. An attack Monday blamed on Muslim Uighur extremists in China's far-western Xinjiang region killed 16 Chinese paramilitary border guards and injured 16 others.

A Hong Kong newspaper, Ming Pao, reported that two bus explosions occurred Wednesday on one of Beijing's main thoroughfares, Chang'an Jie, slightly injuring several people. Chinese authorities did not confirm the report.

The massive security deployment in Beijing was designed to prevent protests as well as violence. But the Paris-based news media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders managed to work around it. Members hijacked an FM radio beam for about 20 minutes Friday morning and, with an indistinct signal, broadcast interviews with human rights advocates and appeals for freedom of expression in China before being knocked off the air.

"Despite everything, there are people who are going to be able to speak out about things you don't want the public to hear, in the very heart of Beijing," the group quoted its secretary general, Robert Ménard, as saying during the broadcast.

Three American advocates for Tibetan independence were detained by police after showing a Tibetan flag near the National Stadium shortly before the Opening Ceremonies, the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said. They were identified as Jonathan Stribling, 27, of Oakland, Calif.; Kalayaian Mendoza, 29, of New York; and Cesar Pablo Maxit, 32, of the District.

The rain, although sparse and short-lived, was a welcome arrival for Chinese officials eager to prevent pollution from becoming an issue during the Games.

Beijing's notorious pollution had risen to 118 on the city's air pollution index two weeks ago, which is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups even according to China's incomplete monitoring standards. That intensified fears that athletes would be unable to compete without endangering their health.

The level has fallen since then and was reported at 94 on Friday, which, according to Chinese and International Olympic Committee officials, should not hinder competition.

The city's heat and humidity remained noticeable during the Opening Ceremonies, and athletes as well as spectators complained of discomfort outside air-conditioned spaces. Bush and other visiting leaders shed their suit jackets, waved fans and mopped their brows.

Two players on the U.S. basketball team, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets, were overheard complaining of the sticky heat in the gymnasium after a practice session Thursday.

"How'd you like to be a biker?" Anthony asked after Bryant remarked on the temperature.

Staff writers Amy Shipley and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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