It began with 2,008 drummers and ended with a gravity-defying cauldron lighting.
The Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony, which took place 10 years ago today, was billed as having the scope and available resources to make it an unprecedented event, a coming-out party for the new China.
“For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world’s athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said in his speech that night. “Tonight, that dream comes true.”
The finished product met the promotion. More recent Opening Ceremonies have not dared to aspire for the boldness of Beijing.
Acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou directed the three-and-a-half-hour show at the Bird’s Nest, the iconic Olympic Stadium that would later become the playground for Usain Bolt.
The first Olympics hosted by the world’s most populous nation broke records for most athletes (10,942), nations (204) and events (302), along with the budget (a reported $40 billion, more than twice the previous record).
Some 15,000 performers in all welcomed the world’s athletes in front of more than 90,000 spectators. It began with a countdown, the flashing numbers on the stadium floor illuminated by drummers — 2,008 in all — that set the tone for an unforgettable evening.
The flag bearers ranged from basketball megastars. German Dirk Nowitzki had the Olympic rings shaved into the side of his hair, and Yao Ming led the Chinese delegation marching last, accompanied by 9-year-old Lin Hao, who had survived the May 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake that claimed nearly 70,000 lives.
The flag bearers included athletes who were not Olympians, like boxers Manny Pacquiao (Philippines) and Alexis Argüello (Nicaragua). As well as American Lopez Lomong, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who came to the U.S. in 2001 and ran the 1500m at the Games.
In the stands, George W. Bush became the first sitting U.S. president to attend an Olympics abroad, according to The Associated Press.
The night ended with Li Ning, the six-time 1984 Olympic gymnastics medalist turned clothing entrepreneur, ascending via cable wires to the top of the stadium, taking a lap around its embryonic inner wall and lighting the cauldron.
The 16 days of medal competition that followed were also among the greatest in Olympic history, from Michael Phelps‘ pursuit of eight gold medals to USA Basketball’s Redeem Team to Bolt’s jaw-dropping sprints.
The Bird’s Nest is expected to host the Opening Ceremony for the next Winter Olympics in 2022, when Beijing will become the first city to hold a Summer and Winter Olympics.
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