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BEIJING 2008: THE PEOPLE OF CHINA / BILL PLASCHKE

The glow of humanity in Olympic fireworks

August 09, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

BEIJING — As promised Friday, the People's Republic of China loudly marched onto the world stage and gloriously linked hands with the world.

It became official when 90,000 Chinese fans did the wave.

During a Summer Olympics opening ceremony filled with flying fairies, dancing light bulbs and enough fireworks to stock every roadside shack in Tennessee, the most dazzling part was the Chinese people themselves.

In a thumping lecture that honored China's rich history through its technological present -- complete with a torch lighting by a gold-medal gymnast who floated across the top of National Stadium -- the government offered the expected bells and whistles.

But it was the fans who provided the humanity.

In sweltering 90-degree heat that turned the Bird's Nest into a wok, thousands nonetheless chirped gratefully at everything from confusing dances to rival countries.

They waved their Chinese flags at everyone, flashed their decorative lights during every moment of darkness, gasped in delight at every twist.

And, well, yeah, they even roared for Kobe Bryant.

While the government put on a steely smile that included a manufactured breeze to flap the Chinese and Olympic flags -- even as fans underneath furiously fanned themselves -- the real story was in the stands.

The highlight occurred at the end of the athletes' march, with the appearance of the Chinese team, led by basketball flag-bearer Yao Ming and a 9-year-old Sichuan earthquake survivor.

The fans erupted in what may have been the longest standing ovation in sports history, 13 minutes strong, everyone rhythmically waving flags and chanting "Jia you," which loosely translates to, "Go for it," which is exactly what they did.

Stories of government oppression dominated the days leading up to these Games, but it was the simple pleasure of its citizens that stole the show.

For these Olympics to work, it has to stay that way.

For the world to put aside its distaste for China's human rights record and believe in these Games, these Games will first have to believe in themselves.

Only through the people of China can this happen. So far, they are off to a good start, partying even as their government attempted to preach.

Indeed, the show on the stadium floor was well-staged and precisely executed, a great display of China's legacy and future.

But it didn't seem as real as the people watching.

Yes, there were 2,008 drummers pounding an ancient beat, and gymnasts doing cartwheels across a giant globe and the five Olympic rings rising mysteriously into the sky in the form of tiny lights.

Truly, it was neat to see hundreds of men flickering like Christmas trees, and colorfully dressed women flying through the air on strings, and, of course, 1984 Olympic gymnastics hero Li Ning reminding Los Angeles folks of his greatness by lighting the torch in midair.

But, unlike opening ceremonies of recent years, this show lacked real smiles, true laughter, visible heart.

This is a show that could have used an artistic advisor like, say, Steven Spielberg.

Oh, wait, the director was actually supposed to work on the show until withdrawing his name in protest of the support the country has given the government of Sudan, widely criticized for the crisis in Darfur.

There were no protests here Friday, unless you count the athletes' opposition to fashion. As usual, the 204-nation march was notable not for how the Olympians walked, but what they wore.

Give full credit to all of them for standing around for hours in the heat, some while wearing suits and ties.

But no offense, Bermuda shorts work only if you're competing for, um, Bermuda.

The Americans looked spiffy in their blue blazers and white pants and white newsboy caps. Lisa Leslie was so thrilled that she was dancing. LeBron James was so excited that he was swaggering.

Then there was rookie Olympian Bryant, who seemed so stunned by it all that he was actually quietly blending in.

The Chinese fans cheered them all -- athletes from Mongolia to Swiss tennis star Roger Federer.

They cheered those flags flapping in a breeze that was not meant for them.

They cheered the fireworks that mostly exploded in skies away from their view.

In an Olympics that preaches "One World, One Dream," at least for one night the Chinese people had both.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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