The audience was then treated to another mass display, this time performed by thousands of Tai Chi and Gong Fu practitioners, to the background of a poem by Li Bai, one of China's greatest and most enduring poets. Meanwhile, children joined the old with the new as they painted representations of China's future on a vast canvas.
Astronauts then descended from the rim of the stadium to draw a three-dimensional representation of the earth up from the ground. While wire-strung acrobats ran around the globe in a cleverly coordinated display, Beijing's Olympic song was sung by Liu Huan and Sarah Brightman. In a final touching gesture, the mass performers simultaneously opened thousands of umbrellas carrying photos of smiling children that had been selected from all those submitted by members of the public following an open invitation.
As the spectators tried to catch their breath, they might have been forgiven for needing a gentle reminder about the people who really count here – the athletes. And right on cue, the march past began. From Greece at the start to China at the end came a procession that lasted more than two hours, accompanied by four or five bands representing different forms of world music, among them a stirring group of Scottish bagpipers.
Many of the politicians and officials in the stands had looked understandably tense as the first part of the ceremony unfolded, but they were able to relax now, and their smiles were mirrored by those of the thousands of volunteers who waited in the stadium to welcome the athletes. Somehow, they managed to greet the last arrivals with the same joy and enthusiasm that they had offered to the first. Yao Ming entered the stadium carrying the Chinese flag accompanied by Lin Hao, a nine-year old survivor of the Sichuan earthquake.
This answered one question, but left another pressing one. Who, then, would be the final carrier in the Olympic Torch Relay? Who would light the Olympic Flame in the stadium?
The suspense continued through the oath on behalf of the athletes, taken by table-tennis star Zhang Yining, the formal opening speeches presented by Liu Qi, Jacques Rogge, and Hu Jintao, and the presentation and hoisting of the Olympic Flag. At last the great moment arrived, and the torch entered the stadium. One by one, potential candidates for the ultimate honor took up the torch, and in so doing revealed that they were not the chosen individual: Xu Haifeng, China's first ever Olympic champion… diver Gao Min… gymnast Li Xiaoshuang… weightlifter Zhan Xugang… badminton star Zhang Jun.
By the time that Tae Kwon Do Gold Medalist Chen Zhong carried the torch towards a darkened podium, there was only one logical candidate left. And so it proved – the honor of completing the Beijing Olympics 2008 Torch Relay was given to one of China's greatest and most famous gymnasts, Li Ning. As a worldwide audience of four billion awaited in anticipation, Li Ning was hoisted into the skies to the rim of the stadium. Around its vertical wall he began a startling run, as a scroll opened before him carrying images of many of the thousands of runners who had borne the torch before him on its worldwide journey to Beijing. At last he reached the torch's final destination, mounted in the rim of the stadium itself, and to the accompaniment of the crowd's mighty roar he ignited the Olympic Flame.
The Flame burned, fireworks exploded, and the world gave a great cheer.
The XXVIV Olympiad, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, are open.
(China.org.cn August 9, 2008)