Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympics Daily Thread, 9 August 2008

(Fou drummers perform during the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics at the National Stadium on August 8, 2008 -- Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Olympics Daily Thread, 9 August 2008

For those of you wanting a daily update on Olympics-related stories, or wishing to have an online conversation about this event, I/we will be posting a thread here every 24 hours which will report on what's been happening, offer some analysis, and create community. If you don't care a whit about the Olympics, feel free to read (and comment) elsewhere on Group News Blog.

I will come here daily and open a thread for those of you who wish to share stories about the Games. Here are the ground rules:

(1) No sexist, racist, classist, or ablist language. You can (and will) comment on these events without targeting oppressed groups in your choice of words. If your post contains such language in my opinion, I will delete it. I am the moderator here.
(2) This is not the place for U.S. nationalism per se. That hype exists in the mainstream media. Of course, we should celebrate those who perform well, but ALL of those who perform admirably, not just American. You will receive prestige points for commenting intelligently about non-U.S. competitors.
(3) This is not about medals only. All performances worthy of attention should receive air time.
(4) Background cultural history or related political stories are welcome, as long as they follow the previous guidelines. Distinguishing between your opinion (which is fine) and more documented fact will earn you more prestige points. Documentation and links are more valuable that vehement argument.
(5) Please don't use this to whip your particular hobby-horse into a lather. This is a general thread about the Olympics, the coming together of nations and the meaning therein.
(6) Limits your comments to one or two, unless you are asked a direct question. Read, listen, and give others a chance to jump in.
(7) If you have suggestions for how folks can watch events online, please pass those on.


This will be subjective, of course. The artistic presentation was stunning in many, many regards. Beginning with a series of 29 "footsteps" across the vast city of Beijing which were outlined in fireworks, as if a giant were walking on a wet beach filled with phosphorescent organisms who burst into luminescence with every footfall, the new and beautiful structure called The Bird's Nest was reached.

2008 drummers in the middle of The Bird's Nest began drumming in the countdown, beginning with 60 (for 60 seconds) outlined by drummers whose instruments glowed in the darkness. Down by ten second intervals, until we reached 10, 9, 8 .... I was particularly moved by the sound of 100,000 people chanting numbers in unison in who knows how many different languages, a sound both familiar and utterly untranslatable except definitively human.

In the absolute center an enormous scroll unrolls. A group of dancers begin moving across the blank page at its heart, celebrating the three ancient Chinese brush arts: Painting, calligraphy, and poetry. Each dancer leaves a mark, because enormous ink pads at the edges leave red, green and black on their feet. They are creating what is called a "Mountains and Waters" painting (Shan Sui), a style used for millenia to reflect the harmony between elements of nature. Harmony is the overriding theme of this ceremony.

Where America celebrates (and fetishizes) individualism, many other places in the world pay much more attention to harmony, to creating a harmonious society. Our ethnocentrism generally leads us to read this as stepping on the rights of the individual. However, I try to step outside my conditioning and my bias, as I watch this, to understand that harmony is necessary to lift a huge population from poverty and hunger. Warfare always creates deprivation around it. You grok, of course, that I'm not advocating repression by the state to avoid dissension. I'm simply attempting to admit a contrary idea.

Gandhi said "There are those so hungry that the only meaningful definition of God is bread."

Now 850 Confucius scholars appear, wearing bamboo scroll headdresses. These are a reminder that the Chinese invented paper, and are also a reference to the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history (722 BCE to 481 BCE). The scholars traveled around China, offering advice on how to maintain a harmonious society.

The scholars give way to a throng of printing presses (the Chinese invented this as well). These are blocks with a human being inside them, and all their motion is done by choreography -- no computers, no hydraulics. They move up and down in irregular waves, as if the wind is blowing them. This references a famous Confucian saying, "The virtuous leader can pass across his subjects with the ease of the wind."

The blocks form the Chinese character for harmony, followed by drops of water (representing inner peace), then harmony again. Eventually the blocks form the Great Wall of China, which is brought down/transformed by a sea of plum blossoms. The crowd's reaction is extreme. It is an extreme part of Chinese history, the transition from isolationism to joining a world community. I'm indescribably moved.
A female dancer appears, supported by others, representing the new openness of China.

The period of China opening to trade and navigating the globe begins, showing Zheng He, the great navigator of the Ming Dynasty who was the first to master use of a magnetic compass. He was an explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral, a major figure in Chinese history. He was also a eunuch.

From the ship and sea imagery emerges a modern era, symbolized by a mass of figures in bright colors with light-up costumes. They arrange into the shape of a dove, which flaps its wings -- amazing choreography. Over them is now suspended a little girl, Chou Chou, who is flying a massive tiger kite.

A group of children representing 56 ethnicities of China move into the center. What are the 56 ethnicities officially recognized by the government of China? Go here to find out. Shorter answer, according to Wikipedia: The major minority ethnic groups are Zhuang (16.1 million), Manchu (10.6 million), Hui (9.8 million), Miao (8.9 million), Uyghur (8.3 million), Tujia (8 million), Yi (7.7 million), Mongol (5.8 million), Tibetan (5.4 million), Buyei (2.9 million), Dong (2.9 million), Yao (2.6 million), Korean (1.9 million), Bai (1.8 million), Hani (1.4 million), Kazakh (1.2 million), Li (1.2 million), and Dai (1.1 million). Can you imagine our own government creating a list of American ethnicities without deliberately leaving out someone?

Surrounding the children are 2008 Tai Chi masters going through forms. (One of the commentators, I think Costas the Moron, refers to them "doing karate".) They flow into absolutely perfect concentric circles as seen from above, without the aid of any markings on the floor -- they form these through an awareness of each other. One of the commentators states that in the philosophy behind Tai Chi, a movement in one direction often begins with a subtle movement in the opposite direction. (Yeah, baby.) Again, the idea being emphasized is harmony, that between humans and nature.

During this, Bush is talking nonstop to Putin, over their wives and an aide -- he is not watching this part of the ceremonies.

The Tai Chi masters give way to soldiers, who march in protective order around the children. I am jarred by this. The commentators say this represents the state guaranteeing stability, and thus protecting the children's future. My Quaker heart struggles to consider such a notion. A little girl is singing "Hymn to My Country". When the flag carried by the children is passed to the soldiers, they sing the Chinese national anthem "March of the Volunteers".

An enormous globe rises, and the first three Chinese space explorers, taikonauts, receive homage. Suspended sideways by wires, I'm guessing, figures run in tracks around the globe above -- fantastic athleticism and artistry combined.

The cultural part of the opening ceremonies was a stunning success, but was marred by the fact that none of the thousands of drummers, martial artists, scholars, or explorers portrayed were women. Only a handful of women and girls appeared, from what was a cast of 10,000 and a nation of 50% female. Not acceptable.

Note: For a fabulous set of photos covering the opening ceremonies, check out the Boston Globe online.

We move into the Parade of Nations. Because the host nation does not have an "alphabet" which is in a particular sequence, the order of nations as they appear is determined by the number of strokes in the Chinese characters spelling their name. Nice.

Greece, of course, leads the way as is traditional. But each of the Greek athletes is carrying a Chinese flag as well as a Greek flag. I am welling up: Patriotism can be expressed in a non-selfish manner.

Of the 205 nations appearing in this Olympics, 204 are marching. The missing group is Brunei. Of these 205, 87 have never won a medal in any Olympics. They are here for the honor of being here, and this, the Parade of Nations, is their shining moment.

Without a predictable order to the sequence, the atlas game -- finding the nation just entering the stadium on an atlas -- becomes an adrenalin-filled scramble. Yee-haw!

(For a list of the nations in the order they appeared, their flags and flag-bearers, check this Wikipedia entry.

What I noticed: Niger had only one athlete attending, and he was of course the flag-bearer.

The following countries had contingents of more than 3, but had NO women athletes marching: Yemen, Central African Republic, Qatar, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Syria, Swaziland, and Myanmar. (The single Afghan woman who was planning to compete, middle-distance runner Mehboba Ahdyar, received so many death threats for her attempt that she has disappeared from her training camp and it is believed/hoped that she is seeking asylum somewhere.)

The following countries had contingents of more than 3, but had only 1 woman athlete marching: Madagascar, Gambia, Pakistan, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Lesotho, and Monaco.

The following countries had contingents of several people but had suspiciously low numbers of women athletes marching: Uzbekistan, Barbados, Chad, Iran, Dominican Republic, Surinam, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (there were two women but they are the daughters of the government's leader), Guam, Palau, Puerto Rico, Tajikistan, Cameroon, Lebanon, and Zambia.

As far as I'm concerned, a nation who can't foster women's equality is unlikely to foster basic freedom for its citizens. It should be right up there with ending race and class oppression.

Vanuatu has the oldest Olympic competitor in these games, a man in his 70s who has been competing in equestrian events since the Olympics of 1964. Palestine has a swimmer competing despite the fact that they have no Olympic-sized swimming pool in which to train. (Shades of Eric Moussambani.) Eritrea had several athletes marching, from a country where the average annual income is $130. Taiwan, once again forced to march under the name Chinese Taipei (because China will not recognize them as Taiwan) and to use a flag not their own, nevertheless drew a huge, heartening cheer from the crowd in The Bird's Nest.

Iraq also drew a huge cheer. The camera cuts to George and Laura Bush. George's applause was perfunctory, his face in his usual dimwitted scowl.

Jordan's contingent of seven had four women, three men. (Way to GO.) Nauru, in their first Olympic appearance, is a nation of 8 square miles with a population of 13,000 -- but they sent a woman athlete.

North and South Korea did not march together this time, although the IOC offered them the opportunity. Governmental pressure prevailed, and the North Korean contingent asked to march separated from their sistren by at least three contingents. Our increasingly polarized world via Chimpy and Gunner Dick's master plan.

After all the blondingly white visages of so many wealthy European and formerly Russian national contingents, I was glad to see solid blocks of people of color in the U.S. crowd. But it's a mixed gladness. While every one of those Olympians has more than earned their way into a chance to compete, I know all too well that the celebrity and respect offered black athletes in this country is part of a system which keeps the majority of those disadvanted by race and class locked into generational hopelessness, with the illusion of the NBA, etc. trotted out to pretend we have class mobility and reward for merit.

(Yao Ming and Lin Hao leading the Chinese contingent in Parade of Nations)
The end of the Parade of Nations was brought in by China, as the host nation. Their flag bearer was Yao Ming, but marching alongside him was a 9-year-old boy named Lin Hao, who had a visible patch of hair missing from his right scalp. Lin Hao was in the Sichuan earthquake two months ago which killed at least 70,000 people. Twenty of those who died were his classmates, from a class of 30 in a collapsed school. Lin Hao managed to free himself from the rubble, but then went back in and rescued two of his classmates. After other rescuers arrived, he sang songs to his still-buried classmates to keep up their spirits as rescuers tried to dig them out. When asked why he had risked his life in this way, he replied that he was the hall monitor, he had a responsibility to his sister and brother students. At the end of the Parade, Lin Hao was in Yao Ming's arms, and his somber, radiant face drew every eye.

After the Parade, ceremonial speeches and welcomes are extended by president of the Beijing organizing committee, Liu Qi, and IOC president Jacques Rogge. The Olympic flag is carried in by eight revered Chinese athletes: Li Lingwei, 13-time world badminton champion; Xiong Ni, three-time gold medalist in diving; Mu Xiangxiong, who once held the world record in the breaststroke; gold-medal winning shooter Yang Ling; speedskater Yang Yang, a five –time Olympic medalist; Zheng Fengrong, once a world record holder in the high jump; Pan Duo, mountain climber; Zhang Xielin, table tennis champion and coach. As the flag reaches the top of the pole, it is caught by some wind that is only apparent at the heights, making both the Olympic and the Chinese flag extend outward and flutter vibrantly.

Prior to the procession of the flag around The Bird's Nest, the Olympic cauldron has appeared above the lip of the stadium, with a spiraling drape of metal up to its dark bowl. The Olympic flame now entered the stadium, carried by Xu Haifeng, who won the first gold medal (in shooting) in China's history during the 1984 Olympics, after China had not participated in the games for decades. He is immediately recognized and roared at with approval by the crowd. From him the torch is passed, in succession: diver Gao Min; gymnast Li Xiaoshuang; weightlifter Zhan Xugang; badminton player Zhang Jun; taekwondo expert Chen Zhong; and volleyball player Sun Jinfang.

The final athlete to receive the torch is Li Ning, a gymnast who won three gold, two silver and one bronze medal at the 1984 games. He takes a couple of steps, then ascends into the air by barely visible wires, causing the crowd to gasp. They gasp again when he reached the margin at the top of the stadium and begins slowly running through the air. His form is utterly beautiful, his leg muscles flexing and extending, as he lopes through the void around the entire perimeter of The Bird's Nest. When he comes back around to the Olympic cauldron, he touches his flame to a pipe which sends a stream of fire up and around the spiraling base of the cauldron until, finally, the bowl bursts into a blaze. Spectacular.

Followed by crescendos of fireworks which remind us that China invented, too, gunpowder, and they remain geniuses at its artistic uses. Thus the 2008 Games are begun.

TODAY'S LINEUP (click on a link to find out details of the competition)
Finals in:
Road Cycling
Non-final competition in:
Beach Volleyball
Football (Soccer)
Gymastics, Artistic
Swimming [Natalie Coughlin! Dara Torres!!!]