The greatest show on earth?

Wow, what a night last night was. Many are already saying it was the greatest show ever staged on earth. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing was nothing short of spectacular. But it was a long (and hot) night. We had to leave our hotel at 3.45 pm in the afternoon in order to go to another hotel, from where the buses to the stadium would be leaving, for security screening. We had been told the buses would leave the hotel at 4.30 pm, but that was probably just to get us there early because they didn’t actually leave until 5.00 pm.

It took us less than 30 minutes to get to the National Stadium – or ‘Bird’s Nest’ as it is known – because most of the roads to the stadium had been closed off. We were in a convoy of 12 buses which had a police escort – but there was little need for that as there was hardly any traffic on the road. There was a policeman about every 20 metres along the road between the city centre and Olympic Green where the stadiums are located, numerous checkpoints around the stadiums, and hundreds of soldiers inside the plaza between the ‘Water Cube’ aquatic centre and the ‘Bird’s Nest’ where our bus dropped us off.

But despite the high security, there was a very relaxed atmosphere inside the plaza and people were wandering around taking photographs of the ‘Water Cube’ and the ‘Bird’s Nest.’

As more convoys of buses pulled into the plaza, we decided to go into the stadium to get a good seat. Our ticket showed the section that we would be sitting in, but we had been told it was free seating inside that section. Just as well that we did, because not long after we were seated (we managed to find two seats at the top of an aisle so that we had a relatively unobstructed view of the whole stadium), many more people started pouring in, and the seats started filling up despite it being only 6 pm – two hours before the start of the opening ceremony.

There was already some pre-opening entertainment going on. At first we thought they were artists rehearsing for the opening ceremony, but as none of them appeared in the opening ceremony we realised later that the entertainment had been put on to keep us from getting bored as we waited for the opening. There were dancers and singers from all parts of China, and some of the acts were very good.

About 25 minutes before the start of the ceremony, people started wheeling in thigh-high Chinese drums into the stadium. They came from all four corners like columns of soldiers on the march, and they kept coming and coming. After about 20 minutes there were about 2,000 drums filling the floor of the stadium and we knew that something special was about to happen.

The lights went down, the 91,000 spectators were asked to turn on the coloured torches that had been placed in bags under their seats, and suddenly the sound of 2,000 drums filled the night air with a tremendous crescendo – and then what happened surprised everyone – the drums lit up and formed patterns across the stadium floor in beat to the drumming – the Chinese drum had gone hi-tech!

And then came the count-down to the ceremony using the drums to form the numbers, finally ending in an explosion of fireworks around the rim of the stadium – it was a spectacular start to the opening ceremony.

As the drummers left the stadium in the dark, the Olympic rings seemingly magically appeared on the floor of the stadium and then gradually rose into the sky to a thunderous applause.

And then a giant scroll started to unfurl in the middle of the stadium which subsequently became the centerpiece of a story that dancers and other performers told of the history of China and its culture. The programme that had been provided to us in the bags under our seats told us that the “long scroll of Chinese painting demonstrates the unique concept of time and space and the philosophy of Oriental aesthetics.”

It was a bit hard to match some of the performances with what was listed in the programme, but I think the appearance of thousands of ‘scholars’ in the picture below was related to the part of the programme which was titled ‘Written Character’ and described as: “In the civilization of mankind, the written Chinese characters show their graceful and beautiful forms. They originated from pictography, which then became symbols. The symbols, though small, have numerous changes, and contain everything of the universe. They convene the most ancient philosophy – that harmony is precious – the relations between people, and between people and nature.” (You would think that after spending US$40 billion in staging the Olympics, someone could have thought about paying a native English speaker a few dollars to correct all the grammatical mistakes in the programme before printing it!)

Next followed some performances of Chinese opera which the programme described (with a few more errors of grammar) as: “Beautiful music come from people’s heart. The traditional Chinese operas have deep roots among the people. This piece of vast land has given births to hundreds of types of traditional operas. With the passing of seasons and years, the Chinese people have gone in pursuit of the eternal Harmony.”

About 20 minutes further on into the ceremony there was a dance sequence that was particularly impressive when dancers in light-emitting costumes came together in a big swirl to form a dove of peace:

I think the pictures above were taken during a sequence called ‘Starlight’ which was described in the programme as: “We live with the Heaven and the Earth; the nature and mankind are in harmony. Human beings have dreams, in the vicinity of nature, and the air of Taiji (the Supreme Ultimate) fills the whole universe”, but I am not a 100 percent sure because in the second part of the ceremony, which the programme called “Episode Two: Glorious Era,” I had difficulty relating between what was happening in the stadium and what was in the printed programme. I only managed to work out where we were when the athletes’ parade started.

The section where we were sitting was the next section along from where all the VIPs were. We could see George W. Bush about 20 rows away, and when the Cuban athletes marched on with a very loud cheer from the Chinese spectators, I tried to see what his reaction was – but he was a little too far away for me to see. Apart from China, the other two countries that got very loud cheers were Iran and North Korea. I bet George was grimacing by that stage!

Usually the athletes enter the stadium in alphabetical order of their countries, but we were told that in Beijing they would enter in an order determined by how many strokes of the pen there were in their Chinese names. Under this arrangement Australia (pictured below) entered second last before China (the hosts always enter last) which didn’t seem right to us because the Chinese name for Australia looks like it has much fewer strokes than the names of many other countries (for example, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which entered 66th out of the 204 countries looked like it had twice as many strokes in their Chinese name as the Australians). Even the student volunteers in the stadium that we asked about it seemed puzzled as to how the order was determined.

Some of the Australian athletes gave the Chinese marshals a hard time when they kept running off the track to make faces at the TV cameras (the Italians were the only other ones who were a bit unruly).

The athletes’ parade took about two hours to conclude, and during this time many of the spectators went for walk to get a beer from the bar or something to eat. Eventually about 10,000 athletes filled the centre of the stadium, and the formalities began with the Chinese President declaring the Games open, the Olympic flag was raised and a runner entered the stadium carrying the Olympic torch.

Just before the torch arrived, some white doves were released to symbolise the Olympic objective of using sport to promote peace. As I read the programme description which said: “Under the blue sky and white clouds, wind blows gently; people of different colours from five continents are blessing for peace” I wondered whether the copywriter realised that this part of the ceremony would be taking place at night (and the sky - if you could see it - was definitely not blue) and whether he or she had contemplated that this would be the very day on which Russia would declare war on Georgia (and Prime Minister Putin seemed quite unruffled about that sitting in the section next to us).

The Olympic flame was carried around the stadium, passing between torches being held by eight of China’s most famous former Olympians, and then the final torch bearer – Li Ning who won six medals at the 1984 Olympic Games – was hoisted up on a wire track that enabled him to run around the inside of the top of the stadium to light the Olympic cauldron which had been constructed in the form of a giant scroll torch. The picture below was taken just as the cauldron was lit. You may just be able to pick out Li Ning in the middle of the spotlight to the right of where the flame starts to the right of the cauldron.

And then fireworks exploding in the sky formed the Olympic rings – very impressive:

After the ceremony was over, we headed outside of the stadium to find our bus. There were plenty of student volunteers holding up signs to help us find our way, so despite the large crowds we found our bus very easily (not like in Doha two years ago, at the end of the Asian Games opening ceremony, when nobody had a clue where we had to go!).

As we headed across the plaza to where the buses were parked, the ‘Water Cube’ looked very impressive in the dark.

40 minutes later we were back at the hotel which we had left seven hours earlier, and from there it was a 15 minutes walk down Wangfujing Street to the hotel where we were staying. People were still partying in Wangfujing Street (they had been watching the opening ceremony on big screens) and the beer bars were still open.

It had been a stifling hot night in the stadium and extremely humid. Most people came away with their clothes soaked in perspiration and sticking to their skin, so we stopped for an ice-cream on the way down Wangfujing Street to cool us down (the first time we have ever had ice-cream in Beijing at 1 am in the morning) and then made our way back to the hotel to sleep after a long but enjoyable night.

Rubbing shoulders with famous people

Torch bearers in Tiananmen Square