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As the Games Begin, Telling Applause and Infectious Excitement

Ditan Park in central Beijing was once where the Emperor would make sacrificial offerings to please the gods at the Temple of the Earth. Tonight, the red walls and clipped lawns again became a place of ritual celebration — this time, to gaze up at two massive screens broadcasting the Olympic opening ceremony. At 8 p.m. (on the eighth day of the eighth month, because the number eight is believed to bring luck), thousands of Chinese fans and hundreds of foreigners hushed as the Bird’s Nest twinkled on screen.

It was pretty surreal to stand for the Chinese national anthem amid a roaring host of young Chinese patriots standing at attention and singing their hearts out as President Hu Jintao appeared on screen. Even the young Public Security police joined in. The ceremony was pretty mind-blowing. It was like a Disney movie starring the Communist Party that highlights China’s cultural and historical wealth, filled with acrobats, legions of synchronized drummers pounding on flashing instruments and so many men and women in lit-up body suits that I almost didn’t notice that the Cultural Revolution and, indeed, Mao himself were no-shows.

But it was the hours-long procession of world athletes that I found most fascinating. International sports, and especially the Olympics, have always crackled with political tension. In fact, there was much fretting in recent days over whether Chinese would boo the Japanese delegation, as many are still bitter over Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s and ’40s. But Japan’s athletes — waving Chinese and Japanese flags — escaped that humiliation tonight.

President Bush was not so lucky. When he appeared on screen waving to the massive American delegation (no masks tonight), some members of the park crowd voiced their displeasure of the lame-duck president. That, however, didn’t stop the hundreds of American fans, including myself, from applauding our athletes, and we were joined by most of the Chinese crowd.

But here in the heart of Communist China, the Cold War’s old alliances still impact public opinion, often making Chinese fans of countries that it is practically anathema for Westerners to applaud. When the North Korean delegation — oh, excuse me, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — appeared, cheers rose into the humid night sky. And when Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was shown smirking in the stands, the crowd around me went wild. The same went for Cuba.

When China’s delegation strode into the National Stadium, my fellow spectators lost it, screaming, “CHINA! CHINA! CHINA!” It was a lovely moment. Parents hugged their only child, teenagers shrieked at the top of their lungs and various news photographers and broadcasters chased the most ecstatic fans with cameras.

Finally, when former Olympic gymnast Li Ning rose hundreds of feet into the air (suspended by ropes) to light the massive Olympic torch, it seemed that all of China’s excitement, hope and suspense over the Olympics rose with him. As his smaller flame lit the final torch, and the ultimate fireworks exploded over the Bird’s Nest, I turned and looked at the thousands of faces, and found myself cheering, too.


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