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From China, a Spectacle Worthy of a Gold Medal

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By Tom Shales
Saturday, August 9, 2008

Eye-poppers gave way to jaw-droppers, stunners were followed by dazzlers, and if the absence of a big emotional catharsis was a little disappointing, the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics from Beijing still added up to one of the most visually beautiful evenings of television ever seen.

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In the abbreviated language of text messages, it was one OMG after another, with nary an unintentional LOL.

The combination of wizardly technical effects and sheer numbers of participating performers made the festivities, aired by tape-delay on NBC last night, an awe-inspiring wonder, a gift from China to the world, which China expects to give it new respect and deference in return. The combination of centuries-old art forms and state-of-the-art electronics, plus enough fireworks for a hundred Fourths of July, seemed appropriate for a nation straddling ancient tradition and neo-Western economic revolution.

The ballyhoo and hype have been considerable, but the mesmerizing spectacle lived up to and exceeded expectations. Encouragingly -- considering the weeks of event coverage ahead -- NBC producers and commentators showed welcome restraint when it came to adding words to the pictures.

Bob Costas, dean of national sportscasters, was less inclined to quip the night away than he was back at the 2004 Games in Greece, and he held off on superfluous chatter until after the son et lumière portion of the program had ended and the colorful but a tad monotonous Parade of Nations had begun.

Costas needed little help but was supported by NBC's hired China expert, Joshua Cooper Ramo ("a nation is about to put a match to the fuse of a rocket," Ramo said just before the ceremonies began), and overexposed "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer, whose insights ran along the lame lines of "There's a lot of energy in this stadium tonight."

The stadium, nicknamed "the Bird's Nest" and looking from the exterior as if it were somehow woven from giant ribbons of steel, was an integral part of the spectacle. Costas pointed out the giant scrim that ran around the circumference at the top, above the highest seats, which wasn't always visible as part of the TV picture.

During the most amazing part of the show, sneak-peaked in still photos and brief rehearsal clips, a giant globe rose from the center of the stadium with dancers clinging to it, secured by wires, while fireworks blazed into the night sky. On the scrim, Saturn flew by at one point, and whales swam above the spinning globe below.

Two singers performed from the very top of the Globe -- the North Pole, as it were -- and later the stadium floor was covered with a sea of children's faces imprinted on giant cards. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Providing a kind of electronic stage for the various hordes of dancers, marchers and other performers, and for many of the special effects, was what Costas described as one of the biggest LED television screens ever constructed. Light-emitting-diode screens are taking over as the new way TV pictures are displayed in American homes, with the cathode-ray tube fading away after about 50 years of faithful -- but often fuzzy -- service.

If the ceremony was China's farewell to the old established image of itself, it was also a goodbye to low-definition television. Viewers watching on high-def screens, especially those of 50 inches or more in size (and with the new 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the long-dominant 4:3) had a tremendous advantage over those watching on outdated or small-screen TV sets.

But never mind the technical details, nor the various statistics parceled out by the commentators (91,000 in the stands, 11,000 athletes participating, 15,000 performers in the show); the cumulative effect of watching the spectacle keep topping itself was to be utterly and gratifyingly wowed.

"I don't see how anyone could dispute the quality of this opening ceremony," Costas said.

I don't either.


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