Saturday, August 09, 2008

Spectacular Togetherness

The opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, which I watched last night on Thai TV in real time (Beijing is only one hour ahead of Bangkok), was a riveting jaw-dropping spectacle, an over-the-top pageant that easily dwarfed any prior sports exgravaganza (Olympics, Superbowl, World Cup). The mix of art and beauty, music and dance, combined with elaborate CGI effects utilizing the entire National Stadium (nicknamed the "Bird's Nest") was engineered by Chinese film director Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "House of Flying Daggers"). Over 15,000 performers took part in the elaborately choreographed drama showcasing China's traditions and culture before an audience of 90,000 including many heads of state. Leni Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany comes to mind.

But I don't want to bash China along with the rest of the western media for its attempt to control the Olympics (100,000 security police are on duty and 300,000 cameras keep watch for any threats to social stability). The government has outspent every other previous Olympics host by a factor of five, and even more than that by comparison on security alone. Pro-Tibet protesters have already been arrested and deported. Muslim activists in some regions of the country are under tight control. Naomi Klein calls this micromanagement "Police State 2.0" and asks: "Can China, despite the enormous unrest boiling under the surface, put on a 'harmonious' Olympics? If the answer is yes, like so much else that is made in China, Police State 2.0 will be ready for export."

I don't think we need a police state to control our populations. The media in America is very good at keeping a supposedly free people in check by bombarding them with enthralling trivia. Today's news about John Edwards' adultry is keeping the pundits gleeful and the public fed. Paris Hilton might take the Republican nomination away from John McCain. Here in Thailand, the border dispute with Cambodia is firing up nationalist and royalist sentiments. In the 21st century you don't need soldiers in the streets any more. Give the people bread and circuses.

I do love parades and pageants, and big sporting events are my meat and potatoes. While I am not a sports fan, and couldn't care less about the box scores, I do get excited about special events. I can enjoy the World Series, the Superbowl and even the World Cup, although I don't give a hoot who wins (I might attach temporary allegiances to particular teams and athletes). Best of all, I like the Olympics (with a particular fondness for the Winter event, especially the ski jump competition). While it may be stage managed and controlled by the host organizers and the Olympic committee, the individual competitions are real, with young trained athletes giving their all to win the coveted gold, silver and bronze prizes. What I disliked most in the past was the undisguised chauvinism of American TV sports commentors, something I will not miss here in Thailand (since I can't understand the Thai commentors). The best part of the opening ceremonies last night was the march of athetes into the stadium. They all looked so young and fresh and enthusiastic.

"One World, One Dream" is the slogan for Beijing 2008, and I will not be cynical. Despite the national banners (and I had not even heard of some of the 204 countries participating), the Olympics really does bring people together. It is a globalizing moment, not unlike the togetherness generated by the internet, or even Coca-Cola. While the nationalists and political idologies that divide are still with us, I believe that the more than 10,000 athletes that participate in this year's Olympic will not return home unchanged. The team from Iran followed Iraq into the stadium, both Israel and Palestine are in competition, and even Taiwan received cheers from the Chinese crowd. Athletes from North Korea and Syria, members of Bush's "Axis of Evil" along with Iran (and President Stupid was in attendance last night), will compete alongside Americans. Perhaps sport is war by other means. Certainly nationalism often bears an uncanny resemblance to fanatical loyalty to one team over another. But athletic competition is a lot less brutal, and rarely fatal (boxing might be an exception).

The opening ceremony began at 8 minutes after 8 p.m. in the eighth month of the 8th year of the 21st century, a most auspicious start. Boy came to our apartment last night to cook us a dinner of larb and kung. He took a few camera photos of his handiwork while we watched the athletes march into the Bird's Nest in Beijing. The festivities were still underway after we finished eating. Pim fell asleep on the couch while previous Chinese gold medal winners jogged around the track with the Olympic torch. She didn't see Li Ning, a six-time winner in gymnastics, vault through the air on wires to take a victory lap around the rim of the gigantic stadium before lighting the Olympic flame. She missed the fireworks all over Beijing to celebrate the beginning of the games. I'm sure I saw more on television than did the lucky few who were able to get tickets to the opening ceremony before it sold out. The video coverage was sensational.

I don't expect world peace to break out following Beijing 2008. But for the next 16 days I hope that the focus of the world's attention shifts a little from armaments to athletes, from attempts to achieve power and control by military and political means to the pursuit of excellence by young competitors at the top of their game. Watching their triumphs, and even their failures, at the Olympics in China might bring us all together, however briefly.


Anonymous said...

Well old friend you hit the nail on the head with your "review" of the opening ceremonies. I am even starting to agree with your politics - OMG what has happened to me in my old age. Happy Belated Birthday, by the way. We are both at that good old age of 69 but can do very little about it, if you get my drift!! Just wanted to say hello and that I am living vicariously through your experiences in Bangkok and enjoying them all. Hope all is well with you and that life works out the way you want it to with Pim. Just think of yourself as Cary Grant (younger women loved him)and he had grey hair, too. Take care.

Dr. Will said...

Barbara, how wonderful to hear from you and to know you are following me as I grow old disgracefully in Thailand!. I've lost your email. If you see this, please write to me at Bill