Basking in The Glow

The 2008 Summer Olympics closed in a display of tightly scripted merriment and lavish fireworks, a final burst of pomp ending 17 days of sports and celebration that Chinese authorities organized with flawless precision and an unbending security clampdown.
By Tom Shales
Monday, August 25, 2008

We're earthbound again. The law of gravity is back in effect. But for a grand last delirious moment, people went spinning, sailing and shooting into the air again amid otherworldly swirls of splendor. The Olympic Games are over; the huge torch was extinguished last night in a taped ceremony beamed back from Beijing in a final rage of color and light.

The Closing Ceremonies were, in truth, not as stupendous or astonishing as the Opening Ceremonies two weeks ago. NBC's coverage was still -- except for a few lame repeated shots -- impeccably uncluttered and gleaming, but the techniques and tricks used by the spectacle's producer and crew and the thousands and thousands of participants were no longer unprecedented.

It would have been folly to try to be blase, but one couldn't be quite as amazed, even if the fireworks seemed to explode more brilliantly, the lights shine more stunningly, the airborne figures glide and soar more effortlessly.

Today's movie audiences are accustomed to scenes with almost unimaginably vast hordes storming castles or riding into battle, but those hordes are created by computers through processes lumped under the acronym CGI. But the huge swarms of people down there on the field inside the vast Bird's Nest stadium weren't CGI illusions; they were real people, a commodity that China has in enormous supply, and they performed with elegant precision and poetic grace.

There were a few guest stars who rose (sometimes literally) above the assembled throngs: soccer superstar David Beckham, who kicked a ball not very impressively into the crowd (a Japanese girl was thrilled to catch it); tenor Placido Domingo, tenderly tenorizing; international pop star Leona Lewis, singing a censored version of an old Led Zeppelin tune; and of all people, Jimmy Page of that venerable rock group. Maybe their records have only just now arrived on the iPods of China.

And many others.

Between highlights of the dizzying ceremony, NBC inserted highlights from the competition itself: "Performances of the Games," including of course a triumph or two by American swimming sensation Michael Phelps, who threatened for a time to turn the Games into "The Michael Phelps Show." In closely related commercials, NBC also marketed a Phelps DVD filled with the victories that made him the most gold-plated champion in modern Olympic history, and another DVD capturing the Opening Ceremonies for posterity, or as long as DVDs last.

This was an event, declared an announcer, "that people will be talking about forever." Already it was being predicted that England has little chance of topping the Chinese in terms of showmanship and spectacle when the next Summer Games are held in 2012. The passing of the Olympic torch to Great Britain was symbolized with the appearance of a miraculous red double-decker bus that turned, like one of the Transformer toys, into some kind of spaceship powered with umbrellas that changed color, lit up, spun, twirled and did whatever else could be thought of for umbrellas to do.

Some things we won't miss: those bleating commercials for that huge profit-mad oil company that kept telling us how hard the corporation is working to make this a better world for us all. Yeah, right. They're taking their old sweet time about it. The commercial was moderately imaginative, however, though not as inspired as United Airlines' artfully animated spots, accompanied as always with variations on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," one of the most American musical pieces ever to exist.

Even those of us who don't consider ourselves sports nuts, and who may never get any closer to a gym or a pair of parallel bars or a swimming pool than we did during those two weeks of marvelous and magical television, had to be impressed and elated by the displays of grace, speed, superhuman agility and, except in a few cases, sterling sportsmanship. There were crises and letdowns and even a terrible tragedy to mar the spirit of the thing, but it still remained a source of spellbinding sensations.

The Games are supposed to bring out the best in those who compete, and these Games, seemingly more than others of recent years and decades, brought out the best in television.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company