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Olympics -- Lights, cameras - let's get to the sport

Date: Monday, 11-August-2008
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By Jesse Fink
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
August 9, 2008

There was a huge kerfuffle during the week when a reporter fromKorean broadcaster SBS infiltrated Beijing's National Stadium duringdress rehearsals for this Friday's Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony.

The tape, later put up on and taken off video-sharing site YouTube,was only about a minute long and didn't show much more than would youand I have come to expect from such extravaganzas - massedcommunist-style choreographed dance routines, outlandish props,gymnastic feats, projections of large moving images onto unlikelysurfaces, thunderous Cecil B De Mille-type music, fireworks galore -but from the outrage that greeted the "spoiler" images you wouldthink the poor hack from Seoul had exposed China's nuclear secrets.

It's an opening ceremony, people. An expensive, overblown melange ofcircus and propaganda that ever since Moscow 1980 unfortunately hasassumed so much importance every four years that host cities spendmore time and money devising ways to outdo each other for spectaclethan addressing the things that make a real difference to a city'sresidents: like efficient transport, good roads, open space.

No one can doubt the political importance of opening ceremonies; howthey are used to express a nation's identity, its aspirations, itshistory, to the rest of the world at a time when the rest of theworld can safely be guaranteed to be watching. But what is theirrelevance to sport?

The sport, the real reason we watch the Olympics, the best kind ofperformance (uplifting, soul-soaring, dramatic), almost is consignedto a disappointing support act - a long drawn out intermission - forthe big-ticket events at each Games: the opening and closing ceremonies.

While no expense is spared to stage these multimillion-dollarproductions and to commission the biggest names in showbiz to lendtheir expertise and imprimatur to them, many of the athletescompeting at the Games have to make all sorts of sacrifices -especially financial - to give themselves a chance to be there.

There's something a little bit inherently tacky about that, in myview, even tackier than the floats and inflated dirigibles oftendeployed in these lurid productions.

The great part of an opening ceremony is always the simplest: theclimax where an athlete runs into the stadium holding the Olympictorch and the crowd, stirred by this enduring symbol of the Olympicideal, gets to its feet and roars.

For me, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics opening ceremony was defined by thesight of former boxing champion Muhammad Ali, racked by Parkinson'sdisease, raising aloft the torch. A sight both beautiful, poignantand, because of his condition, triumphant.
I challenge anyone to try to remember any part of the ceremony thatcame before it. I tried. And I cannot.

Who China chooses to light the Olympic cauldron will be a veryinteresting gauge of what image this great but troubled nation wantsto present to the world. Basketball player Yao Ming, probably thebest-known Chinese personality in the world, would be a logicalchoice, but he has been anointed flag bearer for the Olympic team forthe second straight time and has already carried the torch throughthe gates of the Forbidden City in the capital.

When asked who he thought would light the cauldron, Yao said, "Ibelieve it is an honor that will probably go to one of our olderOlympians or athletes. Someone who was a pioneer. They have stood thetest of time and have a deeper understanding and sentiment for theOlympics and Chinese sports. I think these people are most suitablefor such a historic task."

But Chinese media speculated that Yao would be involved, possiblyhelping a young survivor of the May earthquake in Sichuan provincelight the Olympic flame. Which would be lovely. And so against thegrain of the razamatazz that preceded it.

Clearly, it's an issue that was decided long ago inBeijing-government backrooms (But it was still unannounced when AsiaTimes Online uploaded this edition).

Still, you can bet some spectacular scenarios were considered. Like aflying Shaolin monk. Or a fire-breathing animatronic Chinese dragon.Or the reanimated corpse of the chainsmoking Mao Zedong, who flicksone of his cigarette butts into the pyre.

Either way, it'll mercifully be over soon and the real theater canfinally begin.

Jesse Fink is a leading soccer writer in Australia. He is the authorof the critically acclaimed book 15 Days in June: How AustraliaBecame a Football Nation and has won various awards in Australia forhis sports writing.

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