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Live Blogging: 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony

YJ is out running around the city as Tianjin’s answer to Brenda Starr, I’m here in The Studio with CCTV on the television, NBC on the Sling Box, and a fridge full of diet coke. I was thinking of wandering out of the hutong to join the madness, but I decided to bunker down and do the multi-television thing. Just so you know, There’s a fair to good sized chance before this whole thing is done I’m going to face “China nationalism” and “Wow, Beijing’s a crazy place” overload and begin drinking scotch heavily, but for the moment at least, let’s do an Opening Ceremony running diary.

6:58 p.m. First things first: Yes, the air today was “not great.” Whether it’s “summer mist” or a “toxic cloud of doom” depends on if you get your news from Xinhua or US local television.

7:02 NBC’s The Today Show kicks off from Beijing where today “What some people are calling ‘the most important moment in modern Chinese history’” will occur.  I guess that whole Liberation-Great Leap Forward-Cultural Revolution-Opening and Reform thing was just a warm up act.  Good to know, I can condense a few lectures for next semester.

7:02 CCTV is broadcasting from inside the Bird’s Nest (Today Show set looks to be in the parking lot). Membership has its privileges.

7:02 Very positive coverage on NBC so far: foreign leaders, foreign guests, Chinese pride, big new US embassy.

7:04 That changed fast. Now it’s air quality issues and footage of a BOCOG press conference that didn’t capture the spokesperson’s finest moment on film: “You can’t judge air quality based on a photograph.” No, but when you can’t see more than 300 yards down the street you think something’s up there, Doctor?

7:11 Yeah, I’m out of it. It’s taken me 10 minutes of thinking “Wow, Katie Couric has changed” to realizing that’s NOT Katie Couric.

7:11 Bob Costas and Meredith Viera (I now know, thank you Wikipedia) just exchanged the first of what I am sure to be several grating KNNNEEEE HOOOWS throughout the week.

7:12 Bob Costas kicks off sports coverage jumping right into how athletes can/should make a political statement. Yikes. That said, I do think it’s cool that the American flag bearer is Darfur refugee and naturalized American citizen Lopez Lomong.

7:15 Well that takes the jam out of my donut, NBC isn’t broadcasting the ceremony until the evening in the US.  So much for the whole side-by-side comparison of coverage.

7:18 Ann Curry, Asian Expert, explains why 8 is a lucky number. Seriously, did they look around the newsroom and go: “We need a cultural analyst — Ann, you look Asian, want to take a crack at this?”

7:24 Highlights from past Olympics on CCTV…Ping pong.  A lot a lot a lot of ping pong.

7:40 Took a break to field a phone call.  Your correspondent will be talking to his hometown NPR station at 9:00.

7:47 Mercenary Sinologue Brendan O’Kane is also doing a countdown at his blog.  His take on the smog patriotic mist:

The Manchus who ruled the Qing Empire, of which China was a part, made their capital in Beijing despite hating the place and finding it ‘pestilential and malarial.’ A French expatriate newspaper published in the foreign community around the turn of the century christened the city ‘Pékin des Odeurs.’ The first blog post I ever wrote from China, in July 2001, started off:

I like the air here.
In some places, you don’t know what you’re breathing. Here, you can see it right before your eyes: straight-up, no-bullshit carcinogenic smog. It casts a faint halo around lights, blurs objects that are more than 50 yards away, and is undoubtedly lethal.

Brendan’s also reporting:

# Chaoyang Park and the small parks around Tian’anmen Square are closed for viewing.
# There’s heavy security in Ditan Park.

7:51 Coverage is starting on CCTV and there’s Chairman Hu and Jacques Rogge looking like the divorced couple who weren’t able to sell the summer home in the Hamptons before vacation season started.

7:53 YJ calls from what–according to the background noise–was either the bottom of a particle accelerator or the tarmac in front of the last plane out of Saigon.

7:55 Everybody is in their seats and the chanting has started.  I have to say: The stadium looks magnificent.

7:56 It’s a panda sighting.  Jiang Zemin and a woman we’ll assume is Mrs. Panda Eyes are in their seats.  Wonder what happens when Song Zuying sings her inevitable number?  (Please, please tell me that Jiang’s power has shrunk enough that I never have to suffer another ear shattering number from that woman.  Seriously, it’s like musical water boarding.)  Cheerleaders are leading the crowd in “Go, China, Go.”

8:00 Now those are FIREWORKS.   Serious fire power.  Impressive as hell.  My rule with pyrotechnics is if you can’t invade a small to mid-sized country with what you’ve got in the box, you need to buy more.

8:03 Drumming and chanting…it’s a 2008-person fou performance.  Like a drum circle but much much bigger. I get it…Get in touch with your inner spirit warrior.  Not a problem.

8:05 Fireworks exploding throughout the city courtesy of CGI, Beijing has never looked prettier. I can hear some fireworks pretty clearly through the window, might want to peak out into the courtyard to see if I can see any….The historian in me notes the emphasis on the north-south axis of Beijing as a metaphor for continuity as the camera moves from the Forbidden City to the Olympic Green.

8:11 The kid’s cute…but leading off with minority kids and the PLA…Must. Not. Snark.

8:11 Okay a little snark.  Brendan messages: “They should have just had 3 hours of fireworks.”

8:12 NBC is doing “Chinese Etiquette.”  Did you know “Have you eaten lunch” is how Chinese say what’s up? Green hats=bad.  Don’t give clocks as gifts. Chopsticks in rice bowl=incense sticks at funeral.  Got it.

8:13 The scroll dancing is wicked f——g cool.

8:17 Brendan’s a little grouchier:

“Paper unrolling to serve as a stage. Yes, you guys invented paper. Very nice. I guess the next time the US hosts the Olympics we’ll decorate our opening ceremonies with everything invented in the last century.”

8:18 Now we move on to Chinese Hanzi…one of the oldest forms of writing in history, we are reminded.  The Roman alphabet came a little later, but is still sufficient to spell out tonight’s theme: T-E-L-E-O-L-O-G-Y–everything that came before in the geographic area that is now the PRC was meant to be and led inexorably and inevitably to the Beijing Olympics.  Hanzi. Paper. Confucius takes a wizz. It was all part of the plan.

8:22 Was that our first Chairman Mao name drop? I think it was.

8:30 Seal carvings, block printing…we’re zipping through the wenhua aren’t we? NBC has its aerial shots of Beijing at night; no doubt filmed earlier this week.

8:31 Did I mention how much it sucks that NBC has decided to delay the coverage 12 hours? You couldn’t broadcast it once and rebroadcast it later? What are we worried about, cutting into Regis?

8:32 NBC is modeling the ‘face bonnet’  — the plastic faceguard popular with bike riding Tai Tai’s.  Beijing’s been an imperial capital for 1000 years and this is what we’re talking about?

8:33 Meanwhile back in the stadium…The Tang Dynasty.  A center for global culture and trade. It was the largest, most advanced, and most powerful civilization of its time.  Pax Sinica across the known world.  And the hidden message would be…what? I lost my secret decoder ring.  Could you spell it out for us any clearer?

8:35 Brendan’s take:

I’d like to take advantage of this long stretch of boringness to note that the CCTV 5 announcers suck. The standard constant autofellatio: “Hey, look! Peking Opera! Foreigners never invented that!” “Did we mention we invented paper?”

8:36 Peter Uberroth is on NBC talking about 1984 and how China saved the games by defying the Soviet boycott.  Though I suspect that greasing up and screwing the Soviets had far more to do with Beijing’s decision than the Olympic spirit or a sense of friendship with the people of LA.

8:43 From T.M.H. in Shanghai: “This is turning into a bad Chinese banquet performance.”

8:43 China’s answer to Liberace…Lang Lang.

8:44 March of the neon zombies?  Seriously.  It’s like Pink Floyd discovered the Ice Capades.  Could somebody tell me what that is? I’m across the room and my television is the size of a cereal box.

8:48 More from Brendan:

CCTV Announcer: “The program we just saw described the ancient splendor of China. Now we’ll start to learn more about the splendor of today’s China.” Yeeeees? The next batch of dancers will represent cheap, nonunion labor?

8:49 Flying children.  Now children in light bulb outfits.  We love kids. Let’s make them do unusual things.

8:50 Leading into Tai Chi demonstration…It’s nice, but on my television, as crappy as it is, the close-ups look just like the “Learn Tai Chi at Home” VCDs I bought in 2003.  Same New Agey music, same non-descript backdrop.  It almost inspires me to get out of my chair, do about 10 minutes of stretching, hit pause, and get a donut.  And that’s pretty much the story of my Tai Chi career.

8:57 Okay, the mass kung fu is cool.  It’s like the Boxer Rebellion with a light show.

9:01 It’s the one world.  Sharing the one dream.  Still not sure what that one dream would be.  Right now, I’m thinking a pizza and possibly a bigger television but I don’t know if the world shares this dream or not.  I hope so, I’d like to think that tonight the world’s one dream is: “The Granite Studio could use a bigger television.”

9:03 Brendan is threatening that Sarah Brightman might be due for a big appearance annndddd….there she is.  Can we go back to the kids dressed as light bulbs?  Please?

9:15 What did I miss?  I was giving a brief phone interview back home which would have gone better except the Granite Studio mascot decided she wanted a piece of the action.  In an effort to alleviate the constant “meowing” I unthinkingly opened the door to our place and the cat sprinted outside, through our open gate (which I had thought closed) and down the lane…all that was missing was a rendition of “Boooornnnn Freeeeee….” swelling in the background.  So here I am, discussing Chinese nationalism and chasing a cat through the twisting turns of our yard.

9:19 The march of nations.  Bhutan. Ecuador. Jamaica.  How cool is this?  Who knew Bhutan HAD a team?  I mean how cool is it that a small, Buddhist, Himalayan kingdom famous for its live and let live philosophy has a team at the Olympics and…..okay, moving on.

9:21 Japan enters to a….mixed reception. I think that’s safe to say.

9:23 Taiwan Chinese Taipei enters to a much warmer greeting.  Welcome home, Taiwan brothers and sisters. Just kidding about the thousands of missiles we have pointed at your homes and families.

9:28 One of the best parts of the Olympics: The look on the athletes faces when they walk in behind their nation’s flag–pure joy and pride and excitement.

9:30 Who knew that the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals had retired from music and rested on his royalties only to reemerge as the flag bearer for Papua New Guinea?

9:32 Paraguay marches in…to bagpipes?  Am I missing something or is the music synced to something other than the television picture?

9:43 The Nigerian team appears on the screen and the cat attacks the television.  In Beijing, even the cats are racist.

9:45 Ok, now she’s attacking the Canadian team.  I think it has nothing to do with race…shows what happens when you generalize. I guess the cat’s simply insane.  On a lighter note, tomorrow YJ and I are taking her parents to see the Chinese women play Canada in soccer.  I took the opportunity to remind YJ that my great grandparents emigrated from Canada to New England during the Great Depression and that makes me a fourth-generation Canadian-American, thus I might feel it necessary to base my support on ethnic identity.

The response:

YJ: “What would happen if somebody rooted for the Yankees in the bleachers at Fenway?”

Me: “Bad things.”

YJ: “Yes. VERY bad things and I might remind you that as big as Red Sox Country or Nation or whatever you call it might be, the Chinese nation will always be bigger.”

Me: Zhongguo jiayou?

YJ: You bet your ass.

9:47 Thanks to Facebook’s geography game–one of the greatest time wasters in history, by the way–I can tell you that Sao Tome and Principe are located just off the western coast of Africa.  I feel like you need to know this kind of information.

9:53 From bagpipes to Chinese folk music to…a mariachi band, I think.  All on continuous repeat. It’s like calling Epcot Center and being put on hold.

9:54 Big cheers (and well deserved) for the Iraqi team.

9:56 The Chinese young ladies in the modified “Red Pioneers” outfits have been doing the same cheer for the better part of the hour.  Hop, hop, clap, clap. And if you think it looks a little too much like the “Happy Happy” dance at the Beijing Hooters, go ahead I won’t stop you.

9:59 Not that I’d know personally, of course.  I’ve just heard tell.

10:02 Okay, the music has reset back to “Scotland the Brave.” There must be a good explanation for this…or maybe not.  My neighbor’s nap time music is Kenny G’s “Songbird” followed by a CD of Buddhist chants and then that “Barbie-girl-Barbie-world” techno song.  So…go figure.

10:04 Sudan makes an appearance.  Muted response by the crowd.

10:09 There’s a dude from some Middle Eastern country (Okay, so I’m fading a bit on who’s who) talking on his cell phone while marching and waving the flag.  Like he didn’t tell people BEFORE that he might be on TV?   “Yeah, hey Abdul…like, I forgot to mention that when I was leaving for 2 weeks I would be marching in the Olympic opening ceremonies in front of 4 billion people, so turn on the TV! Oh, and don’t forget to feed the goldfish.”

10:13 VERY mixed reaction to England.  Might be the chilliest reception the British have received in Beijing since Lord Macartney tried to strong arm Qianlong.  Ba-dum Boom. Yeah, I just nerd-busted a Chinese history joke.

10:18 And in comes France…Sarkozy’s excited, but the crowd…not so much.

10:19 Give it up for Puerto Rico!  We have Chinese Taipei and Chinese Hong Kong, should we call it America’s Puerto Rico?  Is it okay if we don’t?

10:25 Interesting response for Russia…it was loud, but I couldn’t get a read on whether it was happy loud, jeering loud, or simply hey-here’s-a-country-the-crowd’s-actually-heard-of loud.

10:27 USA enters resplendent in their berets and blue blazers.  It’s what Elton John would wear to a Hamptons wedding if he were, you know, French. Loud reception from the crowd.  On my crappy television it sounds like cheers, but it’s hard to tell.  I think Sarah Brightman permanently screwed the audio set up.

10:29 Apologies to my wife, but we have certainly selected a comely group of female athletes to represent the USA this time around, have we not?

10:32 Will Moss (The Imagethief) over twitter suggests that after 97 minutes of happy-happy hop-hop clap-clap, the cheerleaders are wilting.  Just a saw a close-up and I would have to concur.  There’s a few who have gone from hop-hop to hop-stand to hop-stagger.  Not good times.

10:36 YJ invites me up to the Olympic Green to watch the fireworks.  I decline. But if I did go…I’m going dressed in the Lesotho national dress: multi-colored poncho and giant pointy hat.

10:46 I’d like to see a steel-cage MMA match between the flag bearer for Tajikistan and the woman holding the flag for Samoa.  Seriously. I’d put even money on the Samoan.

10:49 South Korea gets a reaction.  I keep wanting to say ‘cheer’ but it’s hard to say for certain.  Given the recent tension, a cheer seems unlikely. The crowd sound seems low in the audio mix for the broadcast.  I wonder if that’s intentional….

10:52 Okay, North Korea got a different reaction…they announced Chaoxian and the crowd gave a sudden united…’whoop,’ I guess.  How does one parse a ‘whoop’?

10:56 Mongolia!  Must. Fight. Urge. To. Make. Maggie’s. Joke.  Instead I will remark that the Mongolian team looks like they needed outfits and so knocked over a Century 21 office for the yellow blazers.

10:58 Italy gets a big cheer.  So did Spain.  I suspect the crowd may be taking its cues in the cheering department from the relative popularity/strength of a each nation’s football league and national team.  Just a guess.

11:00 Four hours of live blogging and still going strong.  Thank you, Diet Coke: speed in a can.

11:04 Looks like the German team might have been keeping cool by downing some brews….a couple of the boys show up with volleyball (Soccerball?) hats.  Not sure if anybody said why. Honestly, I wasn’t paying close attention.  I heard “Scotland the Brave” come on again and was hiding available sharp objects. Somebody can’t just plug in a random IPod and hit ‘shuffle’?  Anything is better than this.  At this point, I’d bring back Sarah Brightman and a portable karaoke machine.

11:07 Goodness…is that the Australian national team, or did they just say “screw it” and brought the whole country to Beijing?

11:07 Brendan tells me I missed Da Shan marching with the Canadian team.  I don’t even have a joke for that one.

11:09 Yao Ming comes out waving the flag…which means he probably ain’t lighting the torch.  Big reception, lots of love.  Lots of shots of Hu Jintao waving like a Hello Kitty alarm clock.  Macking the red blazers, gold shirts and the spread collars.  After the ceremony we’ll all be doing the hustle and grooving to the latest “Earth, Wind, and Fire” 8-track release.

11:11 The Nanfang Zhoumou last week published a map of the PRC showing the numbers of athletes from each province.  Number one was Guangdong with 68 but there was a little with number two: a tie at 65 between Shanghai and…Liaoning?!?!? Liaoning’s a nice place, but that was a little surprising especially since the next province on the list is Jiangsu with “only” 46.  Oh yeah, in case you’re into this sort of thing, the paper has one athlete from Tibet and four from Xinjiang.  Taiwan’s on the map but doesn’t have an athlete count (though Hong Kong does–five).  Anybody know who the Tibetan athlete is or what sport they compete in?

Other well-represented provinces/municipalities:

Beijing 43

Sichuan 29

Tianjin/Zhejiang 26

Hebei 16

Fujian 15

Henan 14

Inner Mongolia 13

Hunan 12

Shaanxi 10

The rest are in the single digits.

11:17 T-minus 13 minutes until the big fireworks extravaganza.  I’ve got my ladder and a good fire extinguisher at the ready.

11:21 Shot of Kobe brings the crowd to its feet.  As does a shot of Dirk Nowitzki.

11:22 Lots of people sweating, I know this because of the CCTV camera strategy of sneaking up in close on unsuspecting athletes, waiting for them to turn around, and then going in for shaky/zoomy close up.

11:25 Jacques Rogge and Liu Qi make their way to the podium.  The interior of the stadium looks other worldly, the architects did a fantastic job, but this ceremony is starting to…shall we say…drag a little bit.  Enough with the speeches, let’s bring on the big explosions.

11:30 I’m not alone.  Will Moss via twitter: “It’s official. This show is longer than the Oscars. Replace Liu Qi with Billy Crystal and I’d feel about the same.”

11:32 Jacques Rogge congratulates Beijing, getting a roar of approval.  Nice touch also with the shout out to Sichuan and this earns a good response from the crowd.

11:34 I gotta tell you…not that anyone would ever confuse old Jacques with James Brown or anything, but he seem…subdued.

11:35 Okay it’s beyond ‘subdued’, I’m going with ’embalmed.’

11:36 He ends by thanking the Chinese people, “gan xie ni” though with his tones it comes out more as “干蝎泥” I’ll leave it to the translator types to work out a suitable rendering.

11:44 I knew the ceremony was meant to recall moments in Chinese history, who knew the one it would remind me of the most would be the Long March?

11:44 Yeah, if you want to shake the whole 1936 Berlin games comparison, having soldiers goosestep with the Olympic flag is probably not the best PR strategy.

11:48 Coming up on hour five…we’ve had the oaths and now…okay, now we’re taking a step backwards into musical numbers.  If this were a party, this would be the point where your old frat buddy Al is puking in the corner and groping the cat. In other words: time to wrap it up.

12:01 Okay….Li Ning.  How did I not see that coming? Impossible is nothing, I mean “anything is possible.”  The “wire-fu” aspect is certainly distinctive. It’s like he’s running on air…I don’t know, it’s kind of a let down actually.  I mean Li Ning is certainly worthy, but after all the talk of Yao Ming or Sichuan earthquake survivors and such, I’m kind of…meh.

12:04 Yeah…but that was cool.  Big huge freaking Tower of Flame.  I like it.  Now outside to watch the ensuing explosions.

12:06 Crazy fireworks…amazing spectacle as the CCTV announcers descend into an ill-advised spasm of patriotic blather.

12:07 Well, that’s it for me.  Off to Tianjin tomorrow for the football match.  Enjoy the Olympics.

14 Comments on Live Blogging: 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony

  1. fail. NBC fails. no opening ceremonies and final ceremonies live? While the rest of the world get to see it live? Wow, NBC you’ve failed us all.

    After the olympics, I will never watch that channel ever again. I’m personally going to buy the dvd’s for all the shows that are good despite how NBC screws them over. No money for that network.

    In my eyes… you’ve all failed.

  2. Between you and Brendan’s blogging, I am in serious danger of ruining my keyboard with spewed coffee (this AM, reading Brendan) and Rose (what I’m drinking now, rather than packing, like I should be).

    Hope to see you in the hutong next week.

  3. You did get American Samoa. Still, that is the official name of America’s only southern hemisphere colony…

    And yes, Li Ning was a bit of a letdown. lzh and I were very underwhelmed.

  4. That was a great read in retrospect. I also picked up some mixed reaction to certain teams’ entrances last night, but it was difficult to tell because the broadcasters had muted the audience so much.

    It was always going to be too long (Jacques Rogge had certainly wilted before the end), and a degree of tackiness is inevitable on these occasions. Very clever in parts though, despite the sense that the rest of the world were getting a high tech lecture in ‘look how much we’ve done for you.’

    Which game, Jeremiah? USA-Japan? Could be the only match in the Olympics where home support is with you guys. Enjoy.

  5. >>having soldiers goosestep with the Olympic flag is probably not the best strategy.

    Yeah, it brought to mind Orwell’s essay on the goose-step. I think it was in “The Lion and the Unicorn.”

  6. Stuart,

    We’re in Tianjin today to watch the Argentina-Sweden and China-Canada women’s football matches.

    I wonder if Da Shan will be there and who he’s going to root for?

    As for me, I’m following my wife’s advice (see my entry for 9:45 p.m.)

  7. hilarious play-by-play, j. i actually liked a lot of it, but then i’m a sucker for spectacle.

  8. Was there the Olympic Oath in the Opening Ceremony? I did not see it. Didn’t it happen or did NBC cut it out?

  9. Joseph,

    There was at the very end. I didn’t catch the end of the NBC rebroadcast so I couldn’t say if it was edited or not.

    It would be a shame if that were true.

  10. J, great blogging. I was home in NY for the weekend and caught the end of the (taped ceremony) after some Chinese food in Flushing, Queens. I was thinking the same thing as your re goostepping soldiers, bagpipes(?!), KIRABUTI has a team!?

    I liked the Li Ning thing, but it certainly paled in comparison to Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in ’96. I suppose not much can be done about that though…

    If you saw the NBC broadcast, you may have noticed their China analyst, Joshua Cooper Ramo. We were actually in the same 1st-year Chinese class at Middlebury in 2002. At the time, he was the world editor of Time. The guy was like the Obama of the publishing world. Pretty cool story. That said, can’t say much about his analysis as I missed the first 3/4 of the ceremony. HOWEVER, I did make sure to pick up my very own $3 copy of the Opening ceremony on the streets of Flushing yesterday afternoon, and so I’ll let you know~

    How’s the air today?

  11. Josh is taking a fair amount of heat around here of late from what people saw as his “fawning” commentary to this ties with Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm (which does a lot of business here).

    Don’t know much about him and I didn’t find his commentary particularly exceptional one way or the other, but he does seem to have a fired a few people up round these parts.

  12. “Paper unrolling to serve as a stage. Yes, you guys invented paper. Very nice. I guess the next time the US hosts the Olympics we’ll decorate our opening ceremonies with everything invented in the last century.”
    — fair enough, you can also show how the outsiders of old Europe had burned the local tribes of the new land to present theextraordinary victory of the western science and technology and teach the Chinese what is the human rights.
    It’s true that the Chinese might have drowned into their over proud of the fictive splendid long histroy, but what else do you expect them to show you in the event? Ruins of Yuanmingyuan as a remark of the achievements of western inventions?

  13. Yunsheng,

    Actually quoting another blogger there, but thanks for reading carefully!

  14. Bob Costas should protest the human rights violations done to his face and hair. The botox job has practically left his face frozen and his dye job or toupee is so fake.

    The program was certainly the most memorable and most watched so far, thanks in part to the publicity generated by the boycott olympics campaign.

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