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China aims for spectacular opening

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Mihir Bose | 07:36 UK time, Friday, 8 August 2008

Opening ceremonies are windows on the soul of the nation hosting the Olympics.

It would be easy to dismiss them as over-hyped events and those of us who cover sports are not immune to hype.

A victory in sports, even a lucky one, can be presented as a world changing triumph, a defeat is often a tragedy. But opening ceremonies are different.

For a start they have little to do with the sports that will follow.

They are more like the gathering of the Olympic sporting clan, summoned to hear the call for the Games, before the participants disperse to various venues to display their sporting prowess.

Many of the athletes cannot even be at the opening ceremony because they are too busy preparing for their events.

Indeed, for almost a week after the opening ceremony, the main stadium is not used until the athletics begin.

It is interesting to observe that other sports do not have an opening ceremony.

Football has tried an Olympic-style opening spectacular. The Germans were very keen on one for the 2006 World Cup, even going so far as to announce an opening ceremony in Berlin before the first match of the tournament in Munich.

But in the end it did not work and the Berlin event was cancelled.


The recently concluded Euro 2008 did not even bother with an opening ceremony and decided to concentrate on the football.

But at the Olympics, the opening ceremony is a great chance for the host nation to present a narrative of the country.

In a sense it is the modern equivalent of story telling, the host nation telling its story, or the bits it wants to tell, in front of billions.

In modern times opening ceremonies have also been used by countries not only to talk to the world but also to its own people.

In Atlanta, for instance, the flame was lit by Muhammad Ali.

His struggle with Parkinson's was very evident and it was sad to see this man, one of the most iconic figures in sport, looking so frail.

Many thought, and this view was widely expressed in Britain then, that he should not have been subjected to this ordeal.

But a Games being held in the south, with its history of treatment of the American blacks, clearly needed Ali to light the flame and signify how the region had moved on.

An even more dramatic statement was made at the Sydney opening ceremony in 2000.

This was truly an attempt to present a narrative of the Australian nation which in some ways would heal the wounds inflicted on the Aboriginals and recognise they were the original inhabitants of the land.

I recall the debate in Australia as to who would light the flame, with some suggesting it would be Donald Bradman. But when Cathy Freeman ran into the stadium, it seemed the most obvious choice.

This was a country wanting to finally bury its white Australia past.

Echoes of this were felt the night Freeman won her gold. On that rainy night in Sydney, the Australian nation seemed to hold its collective breath - desperately wanting Freeman to win but worried she might not.

When she did the relief that was felt was palpable and made sense even to those of us who were visitors to the country.

A similar attempt to knit together a narrative was attempted by Salt Lake City, the convoluted history of the United States starting with the native Americans and going through to the various immigrant groups that make up the country.

I felt Salt Lake was not quite as successful as Sydney in presenting a coherent tale of the country.

With these Games, China is trying to make its own statement about its powerful and changing role on the world stage, but at the same time it has a complicated history, parts of which it prefers not to promote. And the images it has chosen to paint that picture will resonate far beyond Friday's opening ceremony.

China hopes it will help create fans of the country not only among those of watching in the stadium, but billions round the world.

And while the sports that follow may be shine more brightly, the opening ceremony will define the Games.

If it works then it will go a long way to marking the Beijing Games as a success.

Successful football managers often say while they like to begin well, what matters is how their teams finish. Sir Alex Ferguson is a master of that art.

In the Olympics, a good beginning is more important. Get it wrong and then the Games struggle to recover, China has done all it can to make sure it gets off to the right start.


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