Even before August 8, 2008, Zhang Yimou had already tucked enough international accolades under his belt to retire a pretty satisfied man: a string of critical stormers from the Chinese director and producer were met with Academy Award nominations and Cannes, Venice, Berlin festival prizes galore.
But as the clock hit 8:08pm that day, he unleashed a breathtakingly ambitious extravaganza that stunned the 91,000 spectators fortunate enough to be inside Beijing’s swanky new national stadium, the Bird’s Nest. Worldwide, an estimated audience of around a billion watched on
, as his near four-hour Olympic opening ceremony dropped jaws with its meticulous choreography, lighting, pyrotechnics and more than 10,000 performers.
It was one hell of statement piece, and an unprecedented display that would be labelled as another ‘opening-up’ for China, or its ‘coming-out’ party to the world. Also unprecedented was the ceremony’s cost – around 100 million USD – though you might say that was just in keeping with the theme: exorbitant spending, along with other political hot potatoes, had dominated the conversation in the build-up to the Beijing games, and while those controversies and criticisms didn’t completely disappear overnight – some still haven’t – a new narrative was emerging. This was a show of might from a new China, a modern nation, and a force to be reckoned with.
Nothing here was a fluke, nor had anything been left to chance. In suitably Chinese just-getting-shit-done style, preparations had gone almost seamlessly to-plan since Beijing was confirmed as host in July 2001. After seven years of hard work and widespread overhauling of the city’s roads, rails and, frequently, its residents, by early 2008, the city was essentially ready to rock, in stark contrast to the messy Athens games that had come four years previously.
China's athletes make their entrance at the opening ceremony. Image: U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons
Equally prepared and equally mighty were China’s athletes, who over the two weeks of events, truly turned up on home soil to bring home 51 gold medals (three were later stripped), more than any other nation, and in turn topple the USA to finish on top of the final table for the first time in their history. Elsewhere, world and Olympic records tumbled non-stop, and global superstars were born – most memorably Usain Bolt and part-man, part-fish Michael Phelps. The former made his 9.69-second 100-metre sprint look like a relative stroll, while The Baltimore Bullet would haul in a record eight gold medals inside Beijing’s awesome Water Cube.
When the closing ceremony rolled around on August 24 – another understated, low-key affair from Zhang Yimou, of course – the world reflected on what had been, in so many regards, a monumental success. As Beijing mayor Guo Jinglong passed the Olympic flag onto his London counterpart Boris Johnson, the pressure was on the Brits to work out how on earth they’d ever follow a show like this (the answer: spend lots of money and unleash David Beckham).
The flame went out, the dust would begin to settle and China’s Olympic fever would steadily wane. Media and official bodies alike were quick to make predictions, prophecies and, often, hasty declarations on the achievements of the games, and their effect on their host city. But even now, ten years on, Beijing 2008’s legacy is still a complex topic that’s tough to judge with complete certainty.