BEIJING's Games End, And a Nation Rejoices
By Ian Johnson and Rebecca Blumenstein
Source: Wall Street Journal
BEIJING -- The Beijing Olympics saw 38 world records broken and one athlete earn more gold medals than anyone in history. In the end, though, the biggest winner may have been China.
Hosting the most controversial Olympics in a generation, China disarmed the world with a firm but polite pageant, one that in the end was dominated by athletic achievement, not politics.
It was clear from the beginning that China was in control. Organizers were harshly criticized for detaining dissidents, including eight Americans who were deported Sunday, but no spectacular protests shook the proceedings. Beijing's polluted air became largely a nonissue as factory closures and traffic restrictions led to blue skies for much of the 17-day event. China's state-run sports system helped it leap ahead of the U.S. in the gold-medal tally, 51 to 36.
"China has become one of the world's true superpowers," says Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising conglomerate WPP PLC. "Perception has caught up with reality."
China's gold-medal haul and the nearly flawless opening and closing extravaganzas laid to rest any residual images of drones in Mao suits or of a country that has gotten rich by knocking off others' products. The Games were widely seen as one of the best-organized ever, from the events that ran like clockwork to the generous crowds who, with few exceptions, cheered Chinese athletes and other countries too.
But how these events are perceived vary dramatically. For some foreigners, the Games' chilly perfection signaled the arrival of a new Soviet-style sporting and political colossus. For Chinese, the message was very different: China has finally rejoined the ranks of leading nations after a 200-year hiatus.
Olympic organizers called the Games "exceptional" at a ceremony closing the Games. Like the much-admired opening, the Closing Ceremonies featured fireworks and thousands of colorfully clad performers whose sheer numbers seemed almost to celebrate China's status as the world's most populous nation.
"Through these Games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world," Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said in a speech at the Closing Ceremonies.
"The Chinese people, teeming with enthusiasm, have honored the commitments they solemnly made," said Liu Qi, head of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee.
But the near-perfect spectacle came at a cost: control that squeezed any spontaneity out of the events. Unlike some of the most popular recent Olympics, such as 1992 Barcelona or 2000 Sydney, the Beijing Games took place in a seeming vacuum -- a vast sporting and media complex on the city's northern edge. Public viewing areas were virtually nonexistent and for the majority of the city there were only superficial signs of the Games' presence -- banners and closed-off traffic lanes. Hours before the closing ceremony, police cleared Tiananmen Square, the massive space at the heart of the city, entirely.
For some, that only reinforced a wariness about China's rise.
"I know from visits to China that the Chinese are funny, interesting people, but this didn't come through," says Gunter Gebauer, a professor of sports philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin. "The perfection and control was not impressive, at least not to us; we had that 70 years ago in Berlin."
With little public polling of sensitive issues, it was impossible to gauge scientifically Chinese people's opinions of the Games. Anecdotally, however, ordinary people seemed thrilled at how the two weeks had turned out. World leaders had come to China by the dozen; the Games had gone off without any of the catastrophes some had predicted; and China could strike another item off its to-do list of securing international recognition.
"These have been a good Games, very good for China," said Pei Yuekai, the owner of a corner grocer in downtown Beijing. Mr. Pei had been watching the Games throughout the day on a small television in his store and had thrilled at it all -- not just the Chinese victories but the sheer excitement of hosting people from so many countries. His son has kept a diary and has plastered his rooms with flags from around the world. "He now realizes how big the world is."