Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2008
Issue No. 912
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bravo Beijing

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The closing ceremony; the Chinese rythmic gymnastics team and the final medals table of Beijing 2008

The Beijing Olympic Games, played out against a background of political intrigue and featuring 16 days of compelling and controversial action, ended just as they had began Sunday inside Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium, with a glittering extravaganza as China made full use of one final opportunity to showcase itself to a world audience.

Spectacular fireworks kicked off the proceedings, while a beautifully choreographed drumming and dancing display recalled the opening ceremony.

It was a more celebratory affair, as exuberant athletes, dancers and musicians got into the party spirit.

The Olympic flag was handed to London Mayor Boris Johnson, with organisers briefly showcasing the 2012 Games.

The countdown to 2012 has started, and organisers will know they have a great deal to live up to with China hosting one of the best organised Games in history and staging some of the most memorable opening and closing ceremonies ever seen.

Beijing's dramatic farewell to the 29th Games of the modern Olympiad got under way with a magnificent firework display, which quickly segued into an amazing display of dancing and drumming.

Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, who claimed three gold medals in Beijing, carried the flag for Team GB as more than 200 flag bearers led the way for the thousands of athletes.

After speeches from Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organising Committee, and International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, the Beijing Games were officially declared over.

China staged the Olympics against a background dominated by fears of pollution, worries over security and protests about its human rights record.

But the sporting action was enthralling, with highlights including Michael Phelps swimming to a record eight gold medals and Jamaica's Usain Bolt breaking three world records on his way to three golds.

"We have come to the end of 16 days which we will cherish forever," said Rogge.

"New stars were born and stars from previous Games continued to amaze us.

"We shared their joys and their tears and marvelled at their abilities, and will long remember their achievements here.

"These were a truly exceptional Games."

The British flag was raised and "God Save the Queen" sung by the choir, before Johnson was handed the Olympic flag from Guo Jinlong, the major of Beijing, and Rogge.

It heralded the start of an eight-minute segment for London organisers to offer a flavour of the 2012 Games, as a red London bus arrived into the stadium.

Hoy, dressed up as a city gent, and fellow British cyclists Victoria Pendleton and Jamie Staff accompanied the bus on bicycles alongside a troupe of dancers holding umbrellas.

Singer Leona Lewis and former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page emerged as the bus transformed into a grass-covered carnival float, and the pair combined for a rendition of "Whole Lotta Love".

And the biggest star turn came when former Manchester United star and England captain David Beckham arrived to kick a football into the crowd of athletes.

The Olympic flame was then extinguished, before the attention shifted to a "memory tower" in the centre of the stadium.

Legendary Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and Chinese soprano Song Zuying joined forces to sing, while Hollywood actor Jackie Chan later joined a throng of dancers and singers for a closing number.

The sporting action was finally brought to an end earlier in the day, with France's men claiming gold in the final of the handball.

It was the 302nd and last gold medal to be awarded, and followed Sunday's finals in boxing, basketball, volleyball and water polo, while Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru won the men's marathon.

President Hu addressed the crowd, praising what he called the "successful conclusion" to the Games.

"The past 16 days have witnessed superb athletic performances and sportsmanship," he said. "Let us pay tribute to all those who have participated in the Games."

Hu mentioned the impressive 38 world and 85 Olympic records set in 16 days of competition before calling for the world to pay heed to the 2008 Olympic motto: "One World, One Dream."

"The world is today in need of mutual understanding, inclusiveness, cooperation and harmonious development," he said.

"The Olympic flame atop the National Stadium will soon extinguish, and yet the Chinese people's enthusiasm in embracing the world will be ablaze forever."

China achieved its paramount goals: a dominant effort by its athletes to top the gold- medal standings for the first time and near- flawless organising that showcased world- class venues and smiling volunteers to the largest-ever peaceful influx of foreign visitors.

The head of the Beijing organising committee, Liu Qi, said the Games were "testimony to the fact that the world has rested its trust in China." He called them "a grand celebration of sport, of peace and friendship."

Before and during the Games, Rogge and the IOC were criticised by human rights groups for their reluctance to publicly challenge the Chinese as various controversies arose over press freedom and detention of dissidents. Athletes shied away from making political statements, and "protest zones" established in Beijing went unused as the authorities refused to issue permits for them and detained some of the applicants.

China invested more than $40 billion in the Games, which it viewed as a chance to show the world its dramatic economic progress. Olympic telecasts achieved record ratings in China and the United States, and the Games' presence online was by far the most extensive ever.

Rogge said these Olympics would leave a lasting, positive legacy for China -- improved transportation infrastructure, more grass-roots interest in recreational sports, and a more aggressive approach to curbing air pollution and other environmental problems. Smog that enveloped the city early in the Games gave way to mostly clear skies, easing fears that some endurance events might be hazardous for the athletes.

Rogge acknowledged that China, despite promises of press freedom during the Games, continued to block access to numerous politically oriented Web sites, including those related to Tibet and the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong.

However, he contended that media restrictions were looser during the Olympics than beforehand, "and so we believe the Games had a good influence."

Human rights groups disagreed. "The reality is that the Chinese government's hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression," said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. "Not a single world leader who attended the games or members of the IOC seized the opportunity to challenge the Chinese government's behavior in any meaningful way."

The Games saw China depose the United States as the new sports superpower. At the end of the 16 days of competition and 302 events, China had 51 gold medals, 15 more than the United States on 36, with Russia winning 23 and Great Britain 19. Australia finished with 14 gold medals.

Although China have yet to truly break through in track and field they have emerged as a gold medal power in a range of sports where they were once also-rans such as rowing, sailing and weightlifting.

The hosts, who did not even compete in the Summer Games between 1952 and 1984, have taken just 24 years to become the most successful nation at the Games and with the enthusiasm generated by hosting the event they are likely to continue expanding their sphere of success.

As a bonus, not just one but two athletes gave arguably the greatest performances in Olympic history -- Michael Phelps with his eight gold medals in swimming, Jamaica's effervescent Usain Bolt with three golds and three world records in the sprints.

Led by Phelps and Bolt, athletes broke 43 world records and 132 Olympic records during the games. Yet Rogge, who visited every venue, said the most touching moment for him came after the 10-metre air pistol event, when gold medalist Nino Salukvadze of Georgia embraced runner-up Natalia Paderina of Russia even as their two countries' armies fought back in Georgia.

"That kind of sportsmanship is really remarkable," Rogge said

Athletes at the Beijing Games lived up to the Olympic motto 'Faster, Higher, Stronger'.

Jamaican Bolt, celebrating his 100 metres world record before he had even finished his gold medal-winning run, provided the most striking image but Phelps's eight gold medals in the pool are likely to be regarded as the most enduring feat of the Games.

American Phelps beat compatriot Mark Spitz's record of seven golds in a single Games, which had stood since 1972. He broke four individual world records and took part in three record-breaking relays, powered by a kick borrowed from dolphins.

Only twice did his goal of overtaking Spitz look in real danger.

He needed Jason Lezak to overtake France's Alain Bernard in a thrilling final leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay and he then beat Serbian Milorad Cavic by one hundredth of a second by using his huge arm span to touch first in the 100 meters butterfly.

Spitz declared his successor to be the "best Olympian of all time" and, while there is more to greatness than medals, his record of 14 career golds is unprecedented in any sport and the 23-year-old could add to his tally in London in 2012.

Bolt already owned the 100 meters world record and in front of a capacity 91,000 crowd at the spectacular Bird's Nest stadium he stormed down the track in 9.69 seconds.

He would have been even quicker had he not begun waving his arms in triumph and slapping his chest well before the finish line. Bolt had always insisted he was a 200 meters runner and he confirmed his participation in the shorter distance only after arriving in China.

When it came to the 200, Bolt broke American Michael Johnson's 12-year-old record, setting a time of 19.30 seconds. Johnson declared Bolt to be "Superman 2."

Bolt led a magnificent performance by Jamaica on the track -- the Caribbean island nation won six gold medals and took a podium sweep in the women's 100 meters led by winner Shelly-Ann Fraser.

Excellence was on show across 16 days of gold, sweat and tears that ended on Sunday.

Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva achieved what athletes in field events so rarely manage. She occupied centre stage by securing the gold and then returning to break her own world record.

She cleared 5.05 meters at the final attempt after spending most of the competition relaxing under a towel and duvet.

Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba won both 5,000 and 10,000 metres to become the first woman to complete that double and her compatriot Kenenisa Bekele matched her in the men's competition.

The millionaires of major professional sports, the US basketball team and the world's number one tennis player Rafael Nadal of Spain, came, were seen, and conquered.

Others showed that the Olympic success is still within reach for people from troubled countries and modest backgrounds -- Afghanistan's Rohullah Nikpai won his country's first Olympic medal with a bronze in the men's 58-kg taekwondo.

Paula Radcliffe, a marathon champion from Britain, finished 23rd in the women's marathon, a result probably disappointing to many and to herself. On the day of her race, She was clearly ill at ease which caused her to gradually slip back in the field. To everyone's admiration, she soldiered on, even without any hope of grabbing a medal.

Then there was Lee Bae-young, the Korean weightlifter and a gold medal hope. He injured his right foot as he attempted to lift 183 kg. But he limped onto the stage and tried again. Again he failed. Again he returned and tried once more.

Even though Lee failed, his courage to challenge the impossible outweighed that of winning a medal. His performance well interpreted Pierre de Coubertin's Olympic ideal.

Also touching was the story of Oksana Chusovitina, representing Germany. She was really outstanding among the women gymnasts and yet old enough to be the mother of some of her competitors.

It was strange for a 33-year-old to compete with teenagers. But Chusovitina's performances were so convincing, and her determination so resolute, she soon won everybody's admiration.

Later it was known that she was competing to earn money to pay for the medical treatment of her 9-year-old son diagnosed with leukemia. This selfless mother's love gave this woman unusual courage and strength to fulfill a "mission impossible". She won silver in the women's vault.

When spectators at the National Gymnasium saluted her with a thundering ovation, Chusovitina had won something beyond an Olympic silver. She won our heart-felt respect.

There were disappointments -- China's favourite sporting son Liu Xiang had to pull out of his defence of his 110 metre hurdles title due to an Achilles tendon injury, leaving his legions of fans heartbroken and the US's Tyson Gay, who was billed as the main threat to Bolt, failed to even make the final of the 100 metres and then dropped the baton in the relay.

A moment of insanity by a Cuban taekwondo jin who kicked a referee in the head dashed the spirit of sportsmanship at the Olympics. On the last day of competition, Angel Valodia Matos sent his foot crashing into a match referee's mouth during the men's +80-kg category. The heavyweight's rush of blood to the head was triggered by his disqualification in a bronze medal bout.

Ara Abrahamian, a Swedish wrestler, got so furious after he felt a judge's decision cost him a spot in the 84-kilogram Greco-Roman wrestling match, that he threw his bronze medal on the mat and walked off during the awards ceremony. He was later stripped of his medal and sent packing.

The IOC said the relatively low number of doping cases at the Beijing Games was testament to the new tough testing regime. From about 4,500 tests, six athletes and four horses failed doping tests at the 2008 Olympics. That compares to 12 positive cases in Sydney and 26 in Athens. Rogge said deterrence has worked.

"It has become more difficult to cheat because we have augmented the number of tests from 3,500 in Athens to 4,500," he said. "Secondly we have also increased the penalties -- the new rule that an athlete that has been penalised for more than six months by his or her federation will not be able to compete in the next Games."

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