The Only Games in Town

Anthony Lane is at the Olympics for the New Yorker, and in a long piece about the first week of the Games, writes about attending the opening ceremony:

In the course of a long evening, billions of viewers were induced not so much to revise their opinion of China as to realize that its formidable manpower could be harnessed to the cause of astonishment. China supports a population of 1.3 billion, and the knowledge of that resource was never far away; indeed, the whole evening became an exercise in number-crunching, as mass art was constructed from a mass of humanity. One townful of men and women would race on, swarm into a shape, and race off, to be replaced by the next; if, deep below the spectacle, there was an unspoken suggestion that it would be an extremely bad idea to go to war against this nation, it never rose to the surface, although one aerial travelling shot of fireworks exploding in sequence along the street leading up to the stadium, displayed for us on screens inside, was a ringer for bombing-run footage from the Vietnam War.

The obvious precedent for Beijing was the Berlin Olympics, in 1936. Both were showcases for a muscle-flexing nation, although Hitler made an elementary error when he chose not to dress his young National Socialists in lime-green catsuits laced with twinkling fairy lights. By a careful choice of color scheme, China was able to draw the sting from any accusations of militarism, while rarely permitting the result to slide into camp. Whereas the organizers of the Sydney Olympics, in 2000, served up bicycling prawns without a murmur, this was a serious spectacle, and its climax—Li Ning, a former Olympic gymnast and now the owner of a leading sportswear brand, loping through the midnight air, in slow motion, around the inner rim of the stadium—was a pure crystallization of Chinese intent, the entrepreneurial fused with the wondrous. Shares in Li’s company soared like the man himself, and that one night reportedly made his life sweeter by thirty million dollars.

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