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Olympic Games Open In Beijing With Extravagant Ceremony

  • RFE/RL

Illuminated Olympic rings during the opening ceremony

Illuminated Olympic rings during the opening ceremony

It was seven years ago that the International Olympic Committee chose Beijing as the site of the 2008 Olympic Games. And the Games finally opened with a spectacular display to celebrate athletics and China's influential new role in the world.

The spectacle was first and foremost about numbers: Beijing's National Stadium was filled with 91,000 spectators to watch 15,000 performers in the opening ceremonies. The show began with a blast from some of the 30,000 fireworks being used.

More than 2,000 drummers pounded a driving beat as the audience counted down the seconds to 8:08 p.m., then the fireworks exploded, bathing the onlookers in a blinking, strobe-like rainbow of color.

As the fireworks shot skyward, acrobats on wires descended onto the stadium's playing field.

Outside, on the streets of Beijing, thousands of people thronged the streets, cheering.

The television audience for the Games overall, meanwhile, could approach 4 billion people -- about two-thirds of the planet's population.

In the past seven years, the Chinese government has spent $40 billion on the sites for the Games, including the National Stadium, a graceful web of steel nicknamed the Bird's Nest.

Attending the opening was a who's who of world leaders. They included Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, U.S. President George W. Bush, and even Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president who at first had planned to boycott the Olympics' opening ceremony to protest China's human rights record.

Also present was a representative from Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway region.

Attendance by such leaders was strong, despite calls that the Games be boycotted, not only because of perceived Chinese human rights abuses at home, particularly in Tibet, but also because of Beijing's rich commercial links with Sudan, whose government is blamed for the bloodshed and ethnic cleansing in the country's Darfur region.

Despite his attendance, on August 7, President Bush did make a point of criticizing China's rights record during a visit to Bangkok. He said he's made his concerns clear to China's leaders, and he called for more liberties in the world's most populous country.

"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists," Bush said. "We speak out for a free press and freedom of assembly and labor rights, not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential."

Human rights didn't bring the only cloud over the Games. Despite the government's best efforts to reduce emissions in its capital of 7.5 million people, a pall of smog hung over Beijing throughout the day.

The theme of the opening ceremony was the 5,000 years of China's history. The extravaganza celebrated the dawn of China; through the era of the Great Wall, built 1,300 years ago to keep out Manchurian and Mongolian raiders; to the modern era, with China's achievements in the arts and sciences, including space travel.

Conspicuously absent from the ceremonies was any mention of the founder of China's current political system: Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, who until his death in 1976 ruled the country single-handedly.
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