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

August 11, 2008

By Jesse Fink
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
August 9, 2008

There was a huge kerfuffle during the week when a reporter from
Korean broadcaster SBS infiltrated Beijing's National Stadium during
dress 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 you
and I have come to expect from such extravaganzas - massed
communist-style choreographed dance routines, outlandish props,
gymnastic feats, projections of large moving images onto unlikely
surfaces, thunderous Cecil B De Mille-type music, fireworks galore -
but from the outrage that greeted the "spoiler" images you would
think the poor hack from Seoul had exposed China's nuclear secrets.

It's an opening ceremony, people. An expensive, overblown melange of
circus and propaganda that ever since Moscow 1980 unfortunately has
assumed so much importance every four years that host cities spend
more time and money devising ways to outdo each other for spectacle
than addressing the things that make a real difference to a city's
residents: like efficient transport, good roads, open space.

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

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

While no expense is spared to stage these multimillion-dollar
productions and to commission the biggest names in showbiz to lend
their expertise and imprimatur to them, many of the athletes
competing 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 my
view, even tackier than the floats and inflated dirigibles often
deployed in these lurid productions.

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

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

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

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

But Chinese media speculated that Yao would be involved, possibly
helping a young survivor of the May earthquake in Sichuan province
light the Olympic flame. Which would be lovely. And so against the
grain of the razamatazz that preceded it.

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

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

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

Jesse Fink is a leading soccer writer in Australia. He is the author
of the critically acclaimed book 15 Days in June: How Australia
Became a Football Nation and has won various awards in Australia for
his sports writing.
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