Clear Messages in a Colorful Show
In four years, London shouldn't even try to compete with the spectacle that Beijing bestowed upon our wondering eyes in the Opening Ceremonies. No democracy can or should invest the money and manpower that went into this city-wide fireworks-spewing deification of national pride, athletic aspiration and Communist Party self-congratulation. Public money could never be justified for such an insanely exhilarating night. Only a People's Republic could squander so lavishly.
The emblem of this night was the contrast between the flag-bearers of the two most powerful teams. China chose its most intimidating, yet engaging, figure, 7-foot-6 basketball star Yao Ming who, in some ways, epitomizes the cross-marketing of a profitable Chinese product to an image-conscious corporation in the West (the NBA).
America's athletes chose neither a medal favorite nor a famous name but rather the slight, 148-pound runner Lopez Lomong, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan who is a member of Team Darfur, to carry their colors. With this act they made a far-from-subtle commentary on China's dismal record on human rights at home and abroad. For that, perhaps, the crowd of 91,000 gave the United States a distinctly mixed reaction, though not as negative as that accorded President Bush, who has made headlines here with tart comments on China's repressive record.
However, for 4 billion television viewers, the dominant memory of this night will be China's cymbal crash of fireworks, costumed marchers by the thousands, acrobats, electronic displays and every sort of sensory-overload proof that the only good excess is wretched excess.
Pageants and parades, panoramas and pomp never translate fully into words. Perhaps that's why we need them. They satisfy a need for the grandiose, even the grotesquely overstated. Whether it's an Opening Ceremonies here or an inaugural parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, people everywhere want a display that's bigger, braver and, above all, prouder than they imagined -- so that we can feel prouder of ourselves.
Many an Olympics may pass before the Games have another host as ostentatiously rich, as deep in heritage and culture, and as insecure about its place in the world as rapidly ascendant and fiercely nationalist China. The party that the People's Republic threw here far surpassed any spectacle I have ever seen at dozens of sports extravaganzas, including Olympics, Super Bowls and World Series.
As the countdown to 8/8/08 -- the pinnacle of Chinese numerological good fortune -- finally approached, seven years of anticipation reached a crescendo. Watching the Bird's Nest start to erupt was almost scary. The entire floor of National Stadium was filled with 2,008 drummers, all in silver robes trimmed in crimson. What did they portend? And would anyone still be able to hear after they were finished?
In due time, their huge drums served as illuminated spelling machines, producing synchronized displays that made the most sophisticated college football card section look infantile. Of course, the Chinese brag that one of their practice sessions lasted 48 straight hours.
When the lights went out, those glowing red drumsticks made the Bird's Nest floor turn to flashing fire while the stands glittered with thousands of interspersed red, green and blue light sticks. Like everything at these Games, nothing is entirely what it seems -- not even a total of 14,000 performers wearing 15,153 costumes, acrobats swimming in the air as if underwater or gargantuan fireworks running the entire central axis of Beijing as if to remind the world (if it had forgotten) that China invented gunpowder.
All this, of course, celebrated the Olympics. But it was just as much spectacle to convince 1.3 billion people that they were living out a glorious collective destiny, a march into a perfectible future that justified any current hardship or lack of basic liberties.