Archive for Thursday, August 14, 2008

Drama, hoopla draw of Beijing Olympics

August 14, 2008

With almost two weeks of events yet to unfold as I write this, it's a little early to talk about how the Beijing Olympics stand up against previous editions.

Be that as it may, judging by the opening ceremonies we watched Friday night and the finals in the men's 400-meter freestyle relay televised Sunday night, you'd have to say that the Games of the XXIX Olympiad seem to be up to par for spectacle and for drama.

The opening ceremonies were the work of Chinese film director Zhang Yimou and resembled nothing so much as a vast animation created with more than 15,000 live performers.

Rich visual effects, precise choreography on a grand scale and accompanying pyrotechnics all combined to make a stunning impression. The opening number featured 2008 Fou drummers. Later, dancers seemed to unroll a giant interactive scroll on the arena floor. The finale featured a dizzying dance with hundreds - maybe thousands - of dancers running pell-mell in opposite directions, in the dark. One wondered how they kept from running into each other.

The production in Beijing National Stadium also featured numerous "flights" such as those seen in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," including one by former Chinese gymnast Li Ning, who carried the torch to ignite the cauldron above the stadium. That moment lacked the poignancy of the shot of Muhammad Ali lighting the cauldron at Atlanta in 1996, but it was a good shot nevertheless. Undoubtedly, it meant more to the Chinese, although I'm not sure Li has quite the celebrity status there that Ali does here.

The Olympics always produce moments of high drama, and some of those Sunday night were in the preliminaries in the women's gymnastics. Of course some of the drama comes from the perceived danger of some of the apparatuses. Personally, I almost cannot bear to watch the women - young girls, most of them - compete on the balance beam. I know there's also a risk of injury even on the floor exercise, but the balance beam seems to me to require almost a supernatural ability to see behind you.

For the 400-meter freestyle relay that we saw Sunday night (actually contested Monday morning in Beijing, which is 13 hours ahead of Central Daylight time), the U.S. team was cast in the unaccustomed role of underdog. U.S. teams had owned this event for many Olympics, before losing in 2000 and 2004. This time the French were favored, and that led to some pre-race trash-talk by one of the French swimmers, Alain Bernard, who by now presumably wishes he'd kept his mouth shut.

After a see-saw battle through the first three legs of the race, even NBC's commentators couldn't quite believe what they were seeing when anchor man Jason Lezak, the oldest member of the team at 32, began to gain on Bernard, finally pulling ahead just at the end. Poor Bernard. Before the race he had said: "The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for." Oh, well.

Adding to the hoopla, the win also kept alive U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps' bid to eclipse Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven gold medals. The relay gave Phelps his second gold of this Olympics, to which he later added golds in the 200 freestyle, the 800 freestyle relay and the 200 butterfly. He will swim in the 200 individual medley, the 100 butterfly and the 400 medley relay on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Each Olympiad seems to produce one or two finishes of this sort. All the hyperbole notwithstanding, the atmosphere of the Olympics can bring out the best in people in all sports, from archery and badminton to weightlifting and wrestling.

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