BEIJING EXTRAVAGANZA

BEIJING — The world knows a little more about China today.

1. What it might lack in emotion, it makes up for with pomp and explosives.

2. Of 1.3 billion citizens, not many probably suffer from acrophobia.

The 2008 Olympic Games officially began Friday night with the international communist power swinging its doors open for the universe to see and swinging a former gold medalist hundreds of feet into the air to light the flame atop Bird’s Nest stadium.

China spent $43 billion in preparing for the Games, and millions and millions went into staging the four-hour opening ceremonies before 91,000 spectators and a worldwide television audience that likely held its collective breath once Li Ning took flight.

Li was Yao Ming before Yao Ming, China’s first Olympics star who won three gold medals in gymnastics in 1984. He was lifted by wires to the top of the stadium and then traveled around the entire perimeter as if jogging on the moon.

On the screen below his feet, a scroll slowly unfurled showing all the places the torch traveled on its journey from Athens to Beijing. Li reached the cauldron, lit the torch and fireworks erupted across the city.

Seven years and countless protests about human rights violations, genocide in Darfur and the contentious occupation of Tibet later, China’s big party was under way.

"(Lighting the torch) is always the most anticipated part of the opening ceremonies," said U.S. tae kwon do coach Jean Lopez. "I was in complete awe."

It was a ceremony built around a theme of harmony, and it needed 14,000 performers, 300 tons of lighting equipment, 15,000 costumes, 516 amplifiers and 1,700 points in and around the stadium for fireworks to work.

China was awarded the Games in 2001 and its officials immediately spoke about showing the world how a once-deprived, secluded country had matured into one of power and influence. The ceremonies helped draw such a map, conveying a sense of culture both past and present through things such as paper and paint and drums and song and dance.

The story effortlessly passed from China’s past into a time of modernization, one told between the march of athletes from more than 200 countries. The United States brought its traditional large contingent, which was led by flag-bearer and track athlete/Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong and anchored by Team USA members such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

The Americans were cheered. But the cheers turned to jeers when President Bush, with wife Laura, was shown on the stadium’s Jumbotron. Moments earlier, athletes from Iraq received a loud ovation from the gathering.

"Hosting an Olympic Games has been a century-old dream for the Chinese nation," BOCOG President Liu Qi told the masses. "Ever since Beijing won its Olympic bid, the hearts of 1.3 billion Chinese people have been pulsating in unison with the Olympic movement …

"Dear friends, welcome to Beijing."

The evening began with 2,008 Fou drummers whose instruments lit up with each whack. Burning footprints rose into the sky. Schoolchildren clustered around the Chinese flag. An ancient compass was brought forward as one of the four great inventions of ancient China. Lang Lang, the young Chinese pianist, played as a 5-year-old girl accompanied. A 9-year-old girl named Zhu Qiaoyan also was lifted into the air by wires (not nearly as high as Li) while chasing a kite across the stadium.

The scene didn’t offer the passion of Barcelona in 1992 — even Li’s air travel couldn’t trump archer Antonio Rebollo’s flaming arrow that could have burned down the entire city — but it did accomplish one goal: One world, one dream is off to one spectacular beginning.

It’s also true you can’t promise an Olympics free of political undertone and not follow through from the outset, which officials did by not having one depiction of Mao Zedong throughout the evening. Instead, they called on a more spiritual guide by twice highlighting sayings from Confucius.

"Friends have come from afar, how happy we are."

"All those within the four seas can be considered brothers."

You figure they could have added a third: "Little man who flies around stadium on wire digs early grave."

Contact columnist Ed Graney at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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