Beijing dazzles: Chinese history, athletes on parade as Olympics begin
Olympic flame’s lighting by multiple-medal-winning gymnast signals for the Games to begin
Last Updated: Friday, August 8, 2008 | 12:49 PM ET
A dazzling fireworks display over the National Stadium helps launch the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics on Friday. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)
After a dazzling show that put China on display to the world and a parade featuring a record number of athlete delegations, the Games of the 29th Olympiad were officially opened Friday with the lighting of the Olympic flame at the Beijing National Stadium.
Chinese President Hu Jintao declared the Games officially open shortly before the spectacular lighting of the flame at the Beijing National Stadium by retired gymnast Li Ning, a six-time medallist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Li, whose presence had been kept a closely guarded secret by Olympic organizers, was raised by wires high above the crowd, and circled the stadium with the flame until he reached the cauldron.
It was the highlight of an awe-inspiring opening ceremony launching 16 days of Games competition.
With a production overseen by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the ceremony itself incorporated 5,000 years of Chinese history into a 50-minute show, which, coupled with the closing celebration, reportedly cost more than $100 million US.
‘It was the best experience of my life thus far.’
—Adam van Koeverden, Canada’s flag-bearer
And then all eyes were on the athletes, including Adam van Koeverden, the kayaker and gold-medal hopeful chosen as Canada’s flag-bearer among the more than 330 athletes from the country competing at the Summer Games.
“It was the best experience of my life thus far,” van Koeverden told the CBC.
The Canadians, speaking on cellphones, snapping pictures and waving to the crowd, received a warm ovation when they entered the stadium as the 63rd country in the parade, estimated to take up about two hours of the three hours anticipated for the entire opening ceremony.
“As we were coming through the tunnel, we were singing O Canada a couple times,” said field hockey player Mike Mahood of Vancouver. “The energy is the best part about this thing.
“It’s energy from a Canadian perspective and energy from a global perspective as well. It’s pretty awesome.”
Added Canadian rhythmic gymnast Alexandra Orlando: “It’s just so unbelievable right now. It’s my first Olympics and I’ve waited so long for this. It’s incredible.”
Chinese inventions artistically interpreted
The entertainment portion of the ceremony centred on revolutionary Chinese inventions of gun powder, papermaking, printing and the compass, the colourful and precisely choreographed ceremony featured everything from the Great Wall to opera puppets and astronauts, while highlighting historic achievements in art, music and science.
The ceremony kicked off with equal-parts pyrotechnics and power, as some of the 29,000 fireworks lit up the main route to the Olympic Stadium.
Flag-bearer Adam van Koeverden, a kayaker from Oakville, Ont., leads the Canadian team into National Stadium. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
A countdown to the opening ceremony was led by a legion of 2,008 drummers who pounded out a hypnotic beat in unison, before the stadium darkened and only their glowing red drumsticks were visible.
The intense drumming gave way to the whimsical as flying acrobats soared across the stadium, while an illuminated replica of the Olympic rings was raised above the arena.
Papermaking was commemorated in unique fashion as traditional landscape paintings were projected onto a huge scroll and actors spelt out Chinese characters with their twisting bodies.
A series of giant grey boxes then surged out of the ground depicting printing blocks from Ancient China before they morphed into the Great Wall.
A traditional scene from a Chinese opera ensued, featuring portrayals of Terracotta soldiers. That gave way to a large group of blue-robed oarsmen with giant paddles, who depicted the Silk Road that linked China to the West.
Dancers covered in sparkling lights then emerged and came together to replicate the form of the Bird’s Nest, as a young girl clinging to a kite string floated overhead.
Gasps of astonishment came from the crowd as a giant 16-tonne blue globe rose from the floor before the show culminated with British singer Sarah Brightman and Chinese star Liu Huan performing You and Me — the official theme song of the Beijing Games.
The event steered clear of references to modern China, with no mention of Chairman Mao nor to the more recent conflicts and controversies reported during the buildup to the Games.
While the production was lavish, the stage was equally impressive.
The stadium nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, which will double as the main track and field venue for the Summer Games, is considered the largest enclosed space in the world.
Dancers perform as part of an extravagant and artistic Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. (Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)
The stadium hosted an opening ceremony capacity crowd of over 90,000, including over 60 sovereigns, heads of state and heads of government, notably U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The ceremony, including the parade of athletes, continued for more than three hours and was broadcast to an expected audience of over four billion viewers worldwide.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper elected to skip the event, instead sending Foreign Minister David Emerson to head Canada’s official delegation at the Games.
Harper joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk among world leaders who chose not to attend the Games.
In total, a record 204 delegations — more than 10,000 athletes are competing — entered the stadium, but didn’t do so in their traditional alphabetical order.
Instead, the order was determined by a sequence based on the number of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese. Greece, birthplace of the Olympics, was an exception, given its traditional place at the start, while the 639-member Chinese team lined up last.
NBA centre Yao Ming served as the flag-bearer for the Chinese delegation, marching with a young boy who survived the devastating earthquake that killed over 70,000 in the southwest region of the country in May.
The Olympics end Aug. 24.
The Beijing Games begin
Globe and Mail Update
August 8, 2008 at 12:23 PM EDT
BEIJING — The world’s grandest spectacle, the opening of the Olympic Games, came to the world’s most populous country with a thunder of drums and a blaze of fireworks — but not without reminders that all the showmanship hasn’t drowned out calls for human rights changes by the Chinese government.
China took over the world stage on a steamy, sultry night, with the most powerful and captivating showpiece to open a Games. A waking economic and political giant, the once-hermetic country — famous for the historic Great Wall that separated it from the world — pledged it would open its doors to the world when the International Olympic Committee entrusted it with the Games seven years ago.
Last night, 100 world leaders were in the stands among the 91,000 people in the National Stadium, hoping they were seeing at least a down payment on that promise. One of the bearers for the Olympic flag was a Tibetan, mountain climber Pan Duo, who was the first woman to reach the top of Mt. Everest. The folklore show in the stadium before the official opening included Tibetan and Uyghur presentations. The U.S. flag bearer was a refugee from Sudan’s Darfur region — distance runner Lopez Lomong .
Situations involving all those nationalities have been the subject of human rights complaints against China’s Communist government, but on a sweltering night of celebration all got at least some recognition — and were part of the party.
“Beijing, you are a host to the present and a gateway to the future,” IOC president Jacques Rogge told the crowd.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, before he declared the Games open, had said China had “fulfilled each and every commitment it made to the international community,” but was talking about promises of a green Olympics and a high tech Olympics.
The city is indeed green, with millions of plantings turning vast stretches of the downtown into an urban parkland. But the thick heavy, smoggy air remains an issue for athletes in endurance events.
It was likely the most expensive extravaganza in Olympic history, as athletes representing 204 nations marched in the parade past dignitaries that included Chinese President Hu, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson represented Canada.
The ceremony was planned as a three-hour spectacle created by Oscar-nominated film maker Zhang Yimou, the artistic director. Long as that seemed to athletes who had to spend hours on their feet, it was masterful, artful and didn’t drag for spectators. Zhang’s goal was to display “the ancient and long history of the Chinese nation… the cultural aspects of Chinese society and showcase what modern China and its people are all about.”
Energetic pageantry began a full two hours before the official start of the opening ceremony — scheduled for an auspiciously selected as a good luck omen: 8:08 p.m., on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008.
There were no more than a few thousand fans in their seats at the massive 91,000 seat stadium and the world-wide broadcast audience, anticipated at four billion, didn’t have a TV signal yet.
What transpired was an impressive parade of acrobatic dances by various folklore groups. They included Tu and Uyghur and Mongolian and even a Tibetan celebration dance. It was a politically sensitive ethic mix of music and dance that proclaimed the world’s most populous state to be functionally multicultural — in an artistic sense, at least.
The most emotional point of the night occurred when the Chinese team entered the stadium — not because it was the home team but because the gigantic national basketball hero, Yao Ming was walking as flag-bearer, side by side with a true hero, a little boy who had pulled two classmates free from danger in the deadly earthquake which hit Sichuan. Yao had the Chinese flag, the little boy clutched a small Olympic flag.
The main event had a cast of 14,000 performers and acrobats — 9,000 of them recruited from the Chinese army. More than 29,000 fireworks set the night sky a fire over the National Stadium — dubbed the Bird’s Nest for its elaborate steel lattice exterior which incorporates 45,000 tons of metal. More fireworks crossed the city’s axis, from 29 rooftops in town
The ceremony was an interactive one, in which the audience members waved IOC and Chinese flags, swung multi-coloured electric torches in circles and flapped their hands to simulate doves in flight as the Olympic flag entered the stadium.
The show was also massive in scale. It had a thundering 2008-member Fou band, beating traditional drums and a 224-member chorus; a 201-member military band. It ranged from sayings by the philosopher Confucius, to the invention of gunpowder and moveable type, to a Dream Rings segment with fairies known as Apsaras falling from the sky on a network of wires and a gigantic Chinese painting scroll on which Chinese legends and tales of the Silk Road were played out. It progressed to modern days with Chinese pianist Lang Lang playing fantasies next to five-year-old Li Muzi.
It also included Chinese pop star Liu Huan, together with British singer Sarah Brightman, as they warbled the specially commissioned friendship theme song of the Games.
Zhang’s plan reflected the understood intent of the Games that were awarded to Beijing seven years ago when the IOC gave the Chinese capital of 18-million a landslide win over Toronto.
IOC members said then it was time to take the Games to once-isolated China for the first time, that the authoritarian and once-secretive country was preparing to open itself up to the West and that the Olympics would be a catalyst for change.
Heavy security was in evidence, with magnetic wands and bag searches, men with furtive looks wearing earpieces and black suits, and helicopters hovering over the stadium.
Basketball star Yao who carried the Olympic torch through Beijing’s Tianamen Square on Wednesday, was picked as the flag-bearer for the host country. Earlier, two huge welcomes went up for one of the Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong-China. Also getting significantly loud ovations were Iraq and Iran.
Canada was the 63rd nation to walk in, behind 2004 kayak gold medalist Adam van Koeverden of Oakville, Ont. He waved the flag high in the humid air as the team received a warm round of applause. Waalking with the Canadian delegation was entertainer Mark Rowswell, the most popular foreign performer to entertain the Chinese in their own tongue and known professionally as Dashan (Big Mountain).
United States athletes made something of a political statement with the selection of their flag-bearer, Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong. He is a member of Team Darfur, whose goal is to draw attention to the Sudanese government’s violent tactics in Darfur — and not incidentally, the reluctance of Sudan’s major trading partner, China, to use its economic influence to stop the bloodshed.
The reception for the American team was a mixed one of cheers and restless sounds — and the tone grew darker when President Bush was shown standing a waving at the team from his place in the dignitaries’ box. Bush is the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.
With him was former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose connection with China was forged when he orchestrated the 1972 trip of former President Richard Nixon to meet with Mao Zedong, one of the first openings for the West to get to know the reclusive China. Kissinger, when he was security adviser in 1971, had stopped in Beijing on a trip to Pakistan to set up the contact.
Among other notable flag carriers were Ethiopian running legend Miruts Yifter, South Africa’s one-legged Paralympian Natalie du Toit who qualified for the Olympic 10-km swim and tennis star Roger Federer of Switzerland.
While the stadium was filled with people, the Olympic plaza and streets around the Bird’s Nest were almost deserted. Hundreds of thousands of Beijingers, eager to get closer to the Bird’s Nest to see the fireworks were perhaps a kilometre back. Police, most in full dress uniforms, had shut off all but official traffic to make sure there were no mishaps as the Olympic flame made the last few kilometre of its world-wide odyssey to the cauldron.
In its first few weeks, the symbolic flame was under siege from human rights activists, one of whom even mugged a wheelchair-bound torchbearer in France. Constant controversy and concern over the safety of the tradition-bound flame prompted the IOC to consider banning international runs.
The identity of the final person to carry the flame to the cauldron had been kept a secret. The last scheduled torchbearer was scheduled to be Chinese gymnastics legend Li Ning, who won three gold medals at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. He was raised to the rim of the stadium on wire cables and did a lap of “running” along the wall, suspended from the wires and a spotlight highlighted him with the flame against the wall. It was the most spectacular lighting in the Games’ history.
Officials remained tight-lipped in the last days before the opening, saying only the flame-lighter had been selected for a combination of “sporting achievement”.
Most expensive Games ever launches today
Aileen McCabe, Asia Correspondent, Canwest News Service
Published: Thursday, August 07, 2008
BEIJING — The Olympic Games have begun.
Dazzling dancers dressed in sumptuous costumes glided onto the field at the Bird’s Nest stadium today and kicked off the month-long charm offensive China hopes will ease its way onto the world stage.
If pomp and ceremony or bricks and mortar are the measure, the gamble the International Olympic Committee took seven years ago to award the Games to Beijing paid off in spades.
The opening ceremony dazzled and the Olympic Park was revealed to the world as a showcase of modern architecture that will define the Chinese capital well into the century. Some 15,000 performers and 30,000 fireworks launched most expensive Games on record, with costs estimated as high as $40-billion.
But the seven long years of recriminations, accusations and protestations certainly didn’t fade away when Chinese star Lui Huan and British soprano Sarah Brightman began the opening bars of the theme song for the Games. It will take at least the next few weeks and probably many months before anyone can truly judge whether trusting China with the world’s most altruistic event was a positive step towards reforming a problem-riddled society or the colossal mistake many human rights activists think it was.
Friday night (Friday morning in Canada) was for celebration, however, and as an estimated four billion people around the world watched, China re-introduced itself to the world.
The show, directed by award-winning filmmaker Zhang Yimou, skipped lightly through thousands of years of Middle Kingdom history, much of it new to westerners but all the stuff of family lore for ordinary Chinese.
Before the night’s festivities even began, the crowd was entertained by troupes from 28 of the 55 ethnic groups China officially recognizes. Just looking at their colourful costumes and distinctive headgear was a lesson in just how diverse a country China is — and why it is so hard to govern. The 123 million citizens listed as minorities often speak their own language, have their own cuisine and even their own religion, albeit often underground, in this officially atheist country.
Among the 80-plus world leaders and statesmen to attend the opening ceremony was U.S. President George W. Bush, who arrived “en famille” for the event. His wife, one daughter, his father, brother and sister were all part of the entourage.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and French President Nicolas Sarkozy both flew in for the festivities and both were scheduled to leave immediately after the finale. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Israel’s Shimon Peres were also in the VIP seats, along with a star-studded cast of royalty, including Albert of Monaco and Thai Princess Maha Sirindhorn.
Canada was represented by recently appointed Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson. He’s well-known to the Chinese and has managed to remain a welcome visitor here despite the current chill in Canada-China relations.
The 332-strong Canadian Olympic Team is lucky enough to be in the first third of the lengthy athletes’ parade that will close the evening’s events, thanks to the vagaries of Chinese calligraphy. It was a welcome draw, given there are 204 national delegations, but it was still late at night when standard bearer Adam van Koeverden, the kayaker who won gold and bronze in Athens, led the waving crew around the track.
The Canadian Olympic Organization has set its sights on a top 16 finish in Beijing, which would put the medal total in the mid-teens. That’s up from the 12 in Athens.
It is because of the timing that athletes often try to skip the opening ceremonies. On the eve of what often amounts to the biggest challenge in their lives, the prospect of sitting idle for long hours in a steamy hot stadium watching what amounts to a variety show is more than many of them can bear.
Aileen McCabe is in Beijing as part of the Canwest News Service Olympic Team
China strides onto Olympic stage
Opening ceremonies inspired and brilliant
By TERRY JONES, Sun Media
BEIJING – If any future Olympic games is ever credited with a more awesome, brilliant, inspired, powerful or original opening ceremonies it might have to be because everybody on the planet developed amnesia.
The spectacular show which China produced to welcome the world to the XXIX Olympic Games and welcome themselves to the world was, almost certainly the greatest show in the history of the greatest show in sport.
With Canada earning one of the loudest welcoming responses in the parade of athletes it was a night of many story lines. One was that George Bush became the first USA President ever to attend an opening ceremony on foreign soil and Vladimir Putin of Russia in attendance as well, the boycott of some world leaders as reaction to China’s record in human rights, was left almost unnoticed.
It was China’s day all the way as the nation of 1.3 billion, one-fifth of the population of the planet, used more than 10,000 performers to depict 5,000 years of history in a spectacular, spell-binding production.
It was so full of wonder and amazement it might not have translated to television. It was, at least, so much better here in person than on the monitors at the press tables because there was so much for the eye to see in so many directions and involving so many performers and so many terrific touches that television didn’t have a hope of capturing the full scope and magnificence of it all.
Expectations were so great for these opening ceremonies to be so great that it was almost impossible to live up to them yet it was a total triumph right from the beginning at eight minutes after eight in the eighth month of 2008.
With 2,008 Fou ancient percussion instruments made of clay and bronze, the same number of performers created a rhythm and light show which counted down the seconds to filling the Beijing sky with fireworks, 11,456 of them on the top of the stadium and 8,428 around the city. There was never a question that fireworks were going to be a key component of the show in the land that gave the world gun powder and they didn’t wait long to fire off the first of the displays which would emerge from inside the stadium, outside the stadium throughout the Olympic Green area around the stadium and from four other sites around the city.
A never-to-be-forgotten highlight was the “footprints in the sky” segment of fireworks beginning at Tiananmen Square, each burst forming a foot in the sky, as they worked their way to the Bird’s Nest for another big blast.
Segments which followed were so massive in scale and complex in detail it was understandable that the performers involved rehearsed full-time for 13 months to pull it off wearing a mind-boggling 15,153 sets of costumes.
The costume party which followed, the athletes march-in was anti-climactic and the saddest part of the evening was that the stars of the show had to wait hours in the heat of the night and missed the whole show so many had enthused about experiencing.
With a record 204 nations involved (Brunei was a no-show), the parade went over two hours this year.
Due to the Chinese alphabet, which is based on the number of strokes it takes to write the name in Chinese, the Canadians marched in 62nd of the in the parade of athletes in the Bird’s Nest in front of the crowd of 91,000 in the architectural marvel made out of glass and 45,000 tons of steel and instantly the No 1 state of the art sports stadium in the world.
Considering they were 50 minutes into the marching when Adam Van Koeverden came out of the ramp waving the Canadian flag, the team received the best reception of any nation to that point and, arguably until the 639-member Chinese team entered the stadium last.
Underwhelming in their Made In China outfits, they at least looked a lot more comfortable in the conditions than most. With former Chinese gold medal winner Jujie Luan on the front row and the Chinese entertainment star Dashan, transplanted Canadian Mark Rowswell, on the second row, both received recognition on the video boards.
Others on the Canadian front row included Susan Nattrass, Tim Berrett, Karen Cockburn, Buffy Williams, Leslie Thompson-Willie, Igor Tiakhomirov, Scott Oldershaw, Peter Giles and chef de mission Sylvie Bernier.
Yao Ming carried China’s flag as the populace went crazy for the home team not just inside the stadium but at several locations in the city where hundreds of thousands gathered to watch on giant video boards.
China even managed to match the Barcelona archer shot to light the torch when gymnast Li Ning, attached to cables, was lifted to the rim of the stadium where he carried the torch around the lip before lighting the caldron at the top of the stadium. That, of course, brought on probably the greatest fireworks display over an entire city the world has ever seen.
If there was a criticism at all, at least beyond the fact it took more than four hours, it might be that the opening ceremonies were so overwhelmingly awesome that the one thing they lacked was a light, delightful, bubbly touch. In that way, the ceremonies might end up being a microcosm of these next 16 days that way – awesome but not that much fun.
If there is an area where Vancouver 2010 has a hope following this act it is to do what China didn’t do and make it a ton of fun.