(My disclaimer here is that it is now 12:41 am and I started writing this post as the ceremony coverage was ending just before midnight.)
First of all, let me say that I hadn't planned to watch this. I used to be BIG into the Olympics when I was younger. I've never been an athletic type but something about getting to see all the countries of the world gathered together just fascinated me. The events I watched at the summer games were things like gymnastics (of course, what little girl doesn't?), track events, and swimming. I'm sure there were others, but those were the biggies for me. I loved the winter games even more, probably because when I was younger I had a secret dream to become a figure skater.
Yeah, those of you that are my regular readers, try to stop laughing. Seriously. You're causing a spectacle.
Somewhere around college I became slightly less interested in the games. I still followed the progress of the American team and celebrated our successes, but the thrill was not the same. I was working at the University of Georgia during the 1996 games and one of my less fond memories of that time is being underneath one of the speakers placed in the trees when it announced a welcome to the games in French and English at an ungodly decibel level. There was also being literally locked into my office because the toilets in our building became "Public."
Needless to say I was a bit turned off by the Olympics after that. If you watch it on television it's all pomp and circumstance and national pride and glory. If you live and work in the city that hosts it (and Athens only had a few events, but it was enough) you see the underbelly of the Olympics and some of the glitter wears thin.
Now, y'all that know me know that I'm a tree hugging left wing liberal peacenik. I am also a child of the Cold War. It amazes me to think that the college students graduating today never knew the overpowering shadow of the Communist Block. All of these parts of me sort of collided when I started thinking about the Beijing games.
But I sat down, with a semi-open mind, and watched the opening ceremonies. The past four and a half hours have been amazing. I was able to temporarily put aside concerns about Tibet and Darfur. The outrage felt over the dog and cat food contamination faded. But I will be honest and say that my emotions were all over the map as I watched.
The opening performances that told the history of China tugged at the girl in me who loved learning about different countries. I had a book called "The Book of Knowlege" or something like that (I'm making a note to ask my mom tomorrow) which had a blurb about everything under the sun, including sections about different countries. Each one had a sample of that country's language and notes about culture, and I devoured all of it. Tonight I found myself devouring the performances, listening attentively to the normally annoying American commentators as they explained what each section represented.
The Chinese children that bore the Chinese flag in made me miss my goddaughters Kaya and Tai. It's been far too long since I've seen them and they only live a state away now. I was so impressed and awed by the absolute beauty of those young faces, clearly overflowing with pride for their country.
Remember how my emotions were all over the map? When the children handed off the flag to the soldiers to raise on the flagpole, I felt a strange twinge in my gut when the soldiers marched away. It was the way they marched...the high steps, the arms and legs moving slowly and in unison...I remembered, as I watched, being a child and learning about the Communists in school. They were the enemy. They had the power to blow us all to kingdom come. They didn't care about individuals as long as their agenda advanced. To an American child living in the land of the individual capitalist and the home of the easily outraged, the Chinese and the Soviets were about the scariest things I could imagine.
Oh how well the politicians did their jobs...clearly the politicians of today learned the same lessons I did as children and are still teaching them...the target of the lesson is just different.
Anyway, I took a moment to process my feelings upon seeing the soldiers. Truth be told, that old twinge had surfaced for a moment in the beginning of the ceremony when some 2000+ drummers performed in unison. One of the announcers commented at the end of that segment that it had been impressive, but intimidating. I agree. I think that was done purposefully, even though (as told by the same announcer) the drummers were told to smile. There is something intimidating about that many people moving in unison...there is also something very Chinese about it. The same feeling crept in again while the Tai Chi masters performed. Precision. Symmetry. Intimidation by sheer mass? Perhaps. China is inviting us into their country and introducing us to "modern" China, but they remind us always of their strength and position in the world arena.
So what's wrong with that? Dubya makes it a point as often as he can to remind anyone that is still listening that America is the most powerful nation in the world. But are we? I wonder if some of the discomfort some Americans feel when faced with countries such as China is because they know that regardless of the Rah Rah Rhetoric preached by Dubya and others, we are not truly a United bunch of States. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link...
Now I'm not naive enough to think that everyone in China is equal. I've heard the tales of the orphanages that my goddaughters lived in before they were adopted. I've seen, as has everyone in this mass and immediate media age, the images of China "cleaning up" before the opening of the Beijing games. But the looks on the faces of the Chinese people in the crowd...the roar of the crowd when the Chinese athletes entered to finish the INCREDIBLY LONG parade of nations...China from the outside seems to be a country of people that recognize its faults and hope for the future. I'm not so sure that the US can say the same about its people.
I applauded a bit for the delegation from Great Britain...never too early to start supporting my second home. Who knew that one of their competitors is only fourteen years old and isn't a gymnast?
I will admit to a fluttery feeling when the American athletes entered the stadium. I may complain about the state of America and I will say to anyone that asks that I think our current place in the world arena could use some serious upgrading...but at heart I'm still that little girl who almost cried when the American flag showed up in the Olympic stadium and sang "My Country Tis of Thee" with all my heart. I love my country. I love being from the South. I'm proud to be an American...I just wish we could get back to the real America. Seriously. This ultra-conservative place we've ended up in after the past eight years is really starting to get old.
My flutters over the Stars and Stripes halted abruptly as I compared the demeanor of the American athletes to those from other countries. Some of the athletes, especially those from the smaller teams, seemed to enter the stadium with a look of awe on their faces, almost reverently like they were on holy ground. The Chinese entered all smiles, waving their flags proudly. The Austrians did some sort of a strange little dance, but they all did it together and then resumed smiling and snapping digital photos and waving.
While some of the Americans seemed to appreciate the magnitude of the setting, others were talking to each other, some were even swaggering about, shouting into the cameras and generally looking like a group of children. They represented the American ideal, I thought: proud, smug, and eager to remind the world who they were. AMERICANS. Stand back.
The torch lighting was awe inspiring to say the least, and it really seemed to drive home how important these games are to China. As the final torchbearer "ran" around the scrim at the top of the Bird's Nest stadium, faces of athletes and other Chinese people appeared behind him. It was as though the energy and pride of that enormous country surged through the flame as it burned up toward the top, then finally the torch was lit and the games were begun.
The Chinese outdid themselves for the opening ceremonies. Here's hoping that Team USA brings home some medals and that the world can pause for a moment and see these athletes standing side by side, appreciating each others accomplishments and coexisting in peace.