Beijing: On Friday, at eight in the evening on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, China will unveil to the world an epic spectacle that is designed to dazzle: the opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games. Beijing hopes the ceremony will represent more than one kind of opening — not only that of a major international sporting event but that of a long-secluded and little-understood civilisation to the world.
Not since the days that Silk Road caravans trundled across its vast expanse in the Tang Dynasty some 1,500 years ago has the country seen such an influx of foreign visitors. Some 20,000 foreign journalists join tens of thousands of athletes and spectators here over the next few weeks. TV cameras will take stories and scenes from inside China into the living rooms of the world.
On Friday evening, an array of world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, Japanese Premier Yasuo Fukuda and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, will join 91,000 spectators in the mammoth, iron mesh-wrought ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, for the three-and-a-half-hour show.
Around 15,000 performers will be on song, and 29,000 firework shells will be used, during the ceremony. Its scale and scope will be a metaphor for China’s meteoric rise over the last three decades.
The opening ceremony will mark the culmination of a decade of lobbying and debate. China had lost a bid to host the 2000 Games following the voicing of “concerns” about its human rights record. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing was, therefore, seen as vindication.
Thus, though the Olympics might be a sporting event, for China the Games are about far more than track and field and diving competitions. They are about prestige and acceptance internationally. Domestically, they present an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to highlight its sound standing in the midst of far-reaching social and economic changes.
Since the time of the Roman Empire, large sporting events have served an important ritualistic and political function, helping create a sense of common belonging and pride among citizens. In China, too, the Olympics are being used to provide nationalist glue, a sense of commonality at a time when traditional social moorings have been unsettled by vertiginous development.
Some $43 billion has been poured into Olympics-related projects, making the 2008 Games the most expensive ever. It will cost nearly three times more than the 2004 Games in Athens where the bill was an estimated $15 billion. But despite the grand scale and ambition, the run-up to the Games saw much debate. The Western media sought to focus attention on human rights, the environment and Internet access issues.
From Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal as artistic director of the opening ceremony to protest Beijing’s ties with Sudan, to the withdrawal of marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie from the Beijing Marathon over air quality concerns, the Games posed some tricky issues.
On Friday evening, however, the politics behind the Olympics are likely to be set aside, as China puts on a show that will allow it to savour the realisation of the Olympics dream.