Beijing opens Games with best show on Earth

BEIJING -- One world, one dream.

One hell of a show.

The only people who didn't enjoy the awe-inspiring Opening Ceremony of the XXIX Olympic Summer Games had to be the folks with the London Olympic organizing committee. They host the 2012 Summer Games, meaning they have to follow the greatest show on Earth -- and, for my yuan, the greatest show in Opening Ceremony history.

If I were the Brits, I'd punt and go with Monty Python reruns. Unless they can top a gold medalist elevating and running on air around the entire circumference of National Stadium to light the torch.

"I was very excited," torchbearer Li Ning said. "I could feel the strength rising from the depth of my heart. This was the result of one month's training. That moment means China is standing side by side with the rest of the world."

Seminal as it was, that moment was merely the last gasp-inducing scene in a show full of fireworks, flying and gravity-defying. For four sweaty hours, the Olympics literally levitated in the thick Beijing air. The 14,000 performers staged a tour de force of choreography, technology and can-do-ology for a country intent on using the Games as a springboard to new world prominence.

About six months ago, Steven Spielberg bailed out as a creative consultant to these ceremonies in protest of China's cozy relationship with the despotic Sudanese government that has spawned genocide in Darfur. The protest was justified, but in creative terms, the Chinese didn't miss him. They produced a blockbuster longer than "Schindler's List" and more special effects-laden than "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

China once was all about Mao. Friday night, it was all about wow. With an assist from Yao.

The one thing the host nation didn't do was cram it all into one day, the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. Eight is a lucky number in China, but by the time this extravaganza had run its course, it was the early minutes of Aug. 9.

Hopefully, that's not a bad omen for the rest of the Games.

But a run-on production can happen when you're staging the biggest coming-out party in the history of the world. The long-cloistered Chinese had 5,000 years worth of culture and 1.3 billion citizens to show off to the world.

They had a lot to say.

"It will be shocking," predicted Marwin Joe of the Beijing newspaper Liberation Army Daily, who sat next to me for the ceremony.

He'd seen the rehearsal twice. And he was right.

But the thing more shocking to Joe -- and, assuredly, many of his countrymen -- is how far China has come as an Olympic power, and how fast. In 1984, the Chinese won 32 total medals in an Olympics boycotted by the Eastern Bloc powers.

"In 1984, when Olympics were held in Los Angeles, most of the Chinese people did not know what is Olympic Games," Joe said.

Six four-year plans later, they know. With the entire world here, their aim is to outdo the United States and win the overall medal count. Their goals are as big as their flag bearer, 7-foot-6 Yao Ming, who led the sprawling Chinese delegation into the Bird's Nest.

They were the final team to march, coming in three hours after the ceremony started and two hours after the other countries began the procession. Despite the dazzling show that began and ended the night, the athlete march truly is the highlight of every Opening Ceremony -- for all of them, this is their gold-medal moment. They made it here, to the world's biggest party. They are Olympians, and this is the payoff before only the best of the best make the medal podiums.

Hopefully TV did the whole thing justice. These productions are hard to describe, always better visually than in the written word. It's why sportswriters tend to fall back on phrases like "moving spectacle."

But this was a moving spectacle.

There are a lot of problems with China and how it handles its people and how it conducts its business. But, beginning with this show, these Games could be the country's real Great Leap Forward.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.