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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China opens Olympics with pageantry, pyrotechnics

August 10, 2008

The Associated Press
August 8, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- Once-reclusive China commandeered the world stage
Friday, celebrating its first-time role as Olympic host with a
stunning display of pageantry and pyrotechnics to open a Summer Games
unrivaled for its mix of problems and promise.

Now ascendant as a global power, China welcomed scores of world
leaders to an opening ceremony watched by 91,000 people at the
eye-catching National Stadium and a potential audience of 4 billion
worldwide. It was depicted as the largest, costliest extravaganza in
Olympic history, bookended by barrages of some 30,000 fireworks.

To the beat of sparkling explosions, the crowd counted down the final
seconds before the show began. A sea of drummers — 2,008 in all —
pounded out rhythms with their hands, then acrobats on wires gently
wafted down into the stadium as rockets shot up into the night sky
from its rim.

President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among
the glittering roster of notables who watched China make this bold
declaration that it had arrived. Bush, rebuked by China after he
raised human-rights concerns this week, is the first U.S. president
to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

Already an economic juggernaut, China is given a good chance of
overtaking the U.S. atop the gold-medal standings with its legions of
athletes trained intensely since childhood. One dramatic showdown
will be in women's gymnastics, where the U.S. and Chinese teams are
co-favorites; in the pool, Chinese divers and U.S. swimmers are
expected to dominate.

The run-up to the games had epic story lines -- China investing $40
billion to build the needed infrastructure, reeling from a
catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province in May, struggling right
up to Friday to diminish Beijing's stubborn smog. China's detentions
of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its
economic ties to Sudan — home of the war-torn Darfur region — fueled
relentless criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an
Olympic boycott.

Second-guessed for awarding the games to Beijing, the International
Olympic Committee stood firmly by its decision. It was time, the
committee said, to bring the games to the homeland of 1.3 billion
people, a fifth of humanity.

The games, said IOC President Jacques Rogge, "are a chance for the
rest of the world to discover what China really is."

The story presented in Friday's ceremony sought to distill 5,000
years of Chinese history — featuring everything from the Great Wall
to opera puppets to astronauts, and highlighting achievements in art,
music and science. Roughly 15,000 people were in the cast, all under
the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often often ran afoul
of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China's problems.

He produced some majestic and ethereal imagery -- at one point a
huge, translucent globe emerged from the stadium floor, and acrobats
floated magically around it to the accompaniment of the games' theme
song, "One World, One Dream."

The show's script steered clear of modern politics -- there were no
references to Chairman Mao and the class struggle, nor to the more
recent conflicts and controversies. The ceremony was taped for
broadcast 12 hours later in the United States.

A record 204 delegations were set to parade their athletes through
the stadium -- superstars such as basketball idols Kobe Bryant and
Yao Ming, as well as plucky underdogs from Iraq, Afghanistan and
other embattled lands. The nations were marching not in the
traditional alphabetical order but in a sequence based on the number
of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese. The exceptions
were Greece, birthplace of the Olympics, which was given its
traditional place at the start, and the 639-member Chinese team,
which lined up last with Yao as its flag-bearer.

Athletes from Japan, an old foe and current economic rival of China,
were greeted coolly by the crowd even though they waved tiny Chinese
flags. But cheers erupted for the next delegation, Taiwan, which
China considers a breakaway province that should reunite with the mainland.

The U.S. team -- second-largest after China's with nearly 600 members
-- was welcomed loudly, with many in crowd recognizing the basketball
stars who brought up the rear. Bush rose from his VIP seat to wave at
the athletes, nattily dressed in white trousers, blue blazers and white caps.

The American flag-bearer was 1500-meter runner Lopez Lomong, one of
the Lost Boys of Sudan, who spent a decade of his youth in a refugee
camp in Kenya. He's a member of the Team Darfur coalition,
representing athletes opposed to China's support for Sudan. On Friday
he avoided any criticism and said the Chinese "have been great
putting all these things together."

Abroad, human rights activists were less generous.

"The Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee have
wasted a historic opportunity to use the Beijing Games to make real
progress on human rights in China," said Sophie Richardson of Human
Rights Watch.

For Chinese dissidents who have dared to challenge the Communist
Party's monopoly on power, the start of the Olympics meant tighter
surveillance and restrictions.

"It's not my Olympic Games," said Jiang Tianyong, a human rights
lawyer. "It's not the games for the ordinary people."

By all indications, however, most Chinese have embraced the games,
buying up tickets at a record pace, volunteering by the thousands for
Olympic duties, nursing expectations of triumphs by their home team.

To their eyes, the omens were good. The ceremony began at 8 p.m. on
the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 — auspicious in a country
where eight is the luckiest number.

"It not easy to meet with such a date," said Wang Wei, secretary
general of Beijing Organizing Committee. "Hopefully this lucky day
will bring luck."
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