Beijing Olympic Debut: Stunning, Terrifying

Could any other city in the world have staged an Olympics opening ceremony to match the scale and spectacle of Beijing's debut Friday? I doubt it. My jaw kept dropping as I watched what will surely be remembered as one of the most awe-inspiring opening ceremonies in Olympics history.

Any one of the many set pieces would have been the centerpiece of any other games. But ceremony director Zhang Yimou (China's celebrated film director) delivered one ground-breaking moment after another, flowing easily from symbolic imagery to sublime artistry on a scale that Olympic audiences have never before seen.

If there is a mission behind these Beijing Olympic games, it is a complicated one. China is well aware of its international image. First and foremost, the Beijing games are intended to reassure the world (so says the New York Times) that China is ready and able to be a good global citizen, promoting harmony and prosperity. We can all be friends, says China. You have nothing to fear from us.

But China is also undeniably in ascendancy as a Superpower—a position it was accustomed to holding (and did so for centuries). And China is still stinging from having lost its status as a Global powerhouse following World War II. So along with messages of friendly reassurance comes this unmistakable announcement: We're Back!

And what an announcement it was. I watched the opening ceremony with more than a little bit of apprehension. This was, after all, a spectacle put on by the world's largest totalitarian government. China is not an open democracy, however much it may try to present itself as such. There are many aspects of China that are simply terrifying to a Western observer.

Among them, China's emphasis on 'Harmony', which to my eye often looks more like forcing a nearly countless population (some 1.3 billion, we're told) to march in flawless synchronization (a feat perfectly but perhaps inadvertently symbolized by Zhang Yimou during the first set piece, in which thousands of drummers performed as one).

I was apparently not alone in this reaction. During the drum segment, NBC's Bob Costas noted that the drummers had been told to 'smile more' to take the edge off the otherwise thoroughly intimidating performance.

That edge remained salient, however, and I found my thoughts wandering back to the 1936 Munich Olympics, in which the world similarly watched a totalitarian state in ascendancy, and wondered what would follow.

The hope of the Olympic Games is that they will not only transcend the moment, bringing nations together to temporarily set aside differences and compete as one, but that the Olympic experience will somehow change those same nations, softening edges, blurring divisions, expanding understanding.

That didn't happen, obviously, following Munich. But watching these Beijing Games, there is every reason to believe this outcome may be different. If the opening ceremony is any indication, the spirit of Change is already well-seated in China's soul. Where, I wonder, will it take us?

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Johan August 12, 2008 at 10:59 am

Toobad the young girl singing turned out to be a fraud (the real little singer was deemed too ugly by the organizers), as was one of the more impressive parts of the fireworks which was now revealed to be computer animation. More is sure to come. It's hard for totalitarian regimes to hide things when the whole world is watching. As far as "change", for the past several decades, on any number of issues before the UN Security council and other bodies, China and Russia is a block against the democratic world. Unless China joins the rest of the world in its condemnation of Russia's aggression towards Georgia there is no reason to believe that somehow China's attitude is any different now (Taiwan may be next after all).

Andy August 12, 2008 at 12:45 pm

I've got no illusions as to the nature of the Chinese government, or to its actions past and present. Still, the China of today is in many ways almost immeasurably different from the China of Tienanmen Square circa 1989. Is it possible to introduce that much change to a population of 1.3 billion and still maintain the political status quo? That's a question that will shape all our futures.