Opening ceremonies of Beijing Olympics star humanity in his own flea circus

Metropolis science fiction horror
Can you remember an Olympic Games opening ceremony that was not spectacular? Suffice it to say Beijing was the biggest, befitting the world’s most populous nation. “Awesome” provides perfectly qualified praise. I have to say this spectacle invoked colossal horror as it drew a full-color digital smiley face over Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

I thought the drumming performance was the most impressive. Two thousand (and eight) drummers beating their hands on antique-style drums set in mobile tables. The bare skinned drummers beat hard, seemingly to illuminate the square table surfaces, like fireflies assigned coordinates in an array, or a spider’s web.

We’ve admired marching ceremonies before, and synchronized flags. We marvel at the precision ensembles of Rockettes, Busby Berkley choreography, and, for want of an example further afield, the Chinese circus. What made the Bird Nest Stadium extreme so horrific was the miniaturization of man’s role. If it had been a Seurat painting, one man, one dot, we might have been comforted to see ourselves woven into a tapestry which created an artistic expression. Instead, long shots showed the full effect to be an LED board, each pixel either on or off, flickering based on whether that person was activated or not. Man as electron, charged or uncharged.

I wondered what was the stadium perspective. Did the audience of 91,000 see the large electronic panel or the matrix of individuals sweating to power it? An aerial view gave the TV audience the full effect, while other cameras zoomed in as if to provide a microscopic perspective of the human termites working frenetically in the machine.

Putting people in the role of insect automatons would seem to me a phobia of a humanitarian society. But the mechanized human component of the 2008 opening ceremonies was not disharmonious with the way we already see China. Everywhere performers were tethered, playing tiny roles in gargantuan schemes. Some provided the piston power to undulating cubes. They revealed themselves only at the end, and emerged only partially, free but to give a smile and wave. These giant light-board shows were switched by computers, their human components alerted by electric signal, be it light, or tone, or sensor, to synchronize their positions. A TV commentator who remarked about the amazing lack of wires, would be overlooking how his personal computing devices communicate these days.

Human labor
The human element was required for the spectacle, otherwise we’ve seen more complex LEDs on old ballpark scoreboards. Technically the chain-link of humans was superfluous, but doesn’t it represent China, where labor costs are negligible?

And so we cheered the 2008 drummers, who worked drums mounted into tables that could pass for work desks. Indeed the drummers were bent over them like bent people, galley slaves exerting themselves to the rhythm of the whip. It was a sea of modern slaves, the sweatshop laborers. Actually, two thousand and eight impressed the crowd, but that number is probably small for a factory workforce. Probably there are scenes like this many times as big in daily Chinese work life.

Food processing

Later the performance took on a Disneyesque quality as dancers opened umbrellas illuminated with large smiling faces of children. Is that a touch-stone theme for pseudo international-harmony? The promise of children? I wondered after seeing the drummers harnessed to their sewing tables, coordinated by an electronic whip-master, if the faces of children represented the child workforce. In traditional cultures childhood idleness ends when a child can carry water or sweep the floor. The idealized child is a Western facade and here China appears eager to celebrate the ruse. Mankind’s aspiration should emulate the innocuous, non-threatening smile of a child.

Never before have I gotten a clearer sense of the Olympics as gladiator games. The audience are the privileged few, who do not bring politics to the games except the rivalry of nationalism, a preference for their athletes, rooting for a win to enhance their prestige. Ninety dignitaries were in attendance in Beijing. And what a celebration of harmony. Regardless the turmoil between nations outside, between world leaders, harmony. Because they’re going nowhere. Only rebels and coups threaten the ruling class. Did you know an IOC rule forbids the display of flags of entities not competing in the games?

Politics don’t enter the minds of the athlete class because they’ve got a singular focus, their performance. Some strive for financial rewards, others are focused on the physical achievement. All are vying to please the emperor, to live to compete again.

Even as the techno pageantry dazzled, by the end I was still shocked to see a human being reduced to flintlock to carry the flame to the gigantic torch, a blazing industrial altar.

The colossal fireworks show looked to be outside the view of the stadium audience, but I saw no throngs outdoors to witness it. The pyrotechnics reminded me of Shock and Awe the first night in Baghdad, cameras well recessed to take it all in. It turns out a chunk of the fireworks was CGI for the TV spectacular.

In hindsight for me the highlight of the evening was seeing President Bush sitting next to Vladimir Putin, each saluting their athletes in turn, neither turning toward each other, at least on camera, while in Georgia US backed forces battled Russian soldiers in all out war. An example of a tangible measure to which politics are kept out of the Olympic Games.

Drummer pool

Umbrella children

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

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6 Responses to Opening ceremonies of Beijing Olympics star humanity in his own flea circus

  1. Avatar Marie says:

    One country, one dream. Everyone plays a part.

    I’m sitting in a Tibetan cafe in Lijiang, stuffed full of vegetable curry dumplings, drinking yak butter tea and thinking I love China.

  2. Eric Eric says:

    You’re in LIJIANG?! You’re not watching the Olympics at all, are you?!

    Have you stopped by a cafe called MINNIE MAO? Notorious. Lijiang is the bohemian capital for expats. It was the furthest north tourists would come who were otherwise nursing drug lifestyles on the Thai coast. They’d alternate stays in China and Thailand depending on which visitors visa had expired.

    Sitting at a cafe on a cobblestone street, reached by other cobblestone alleys, where there are no cars, just trees and birds, busy Chinese and lots of hardy backpackers, you want to stay forever.

  3. Eric Eric says:

    Sorry, MINNIE MAO’S is in Yangshuo, which you might have visited if you came down the Li River from Guilin, on your way to Lijiang.

    Street cafes in Yangshuo

  4. Avatar Marie Walden says:

    I didn’t do much café sitting or backpacker canoodling in Lijiang. In fact, I found Old Town rather cramped and uninteresting!

    I spent much of my time in alpine meadows and remote mountain villages, taking in the amazing landscape (the start of the Himalayas) and interacting with the Naxi and Bai people.

    No doubt, the Yunnan province has given me the best travel days of my life — so far!

    Photos and stories on the way!

  5. Avatar Marie Walden says:

    And, no, I haven’t seen a single Olympic competition. I doubt I will.

    I hear that China is kicking it. Good for them! The entire country is watching, even in faraway places. The little televisions are on, and people are gathered. Walking around, I poke my head in to see what’s playing, and they welcome me to sit, drink tea, and watch China dominate the competition.

    I’ve completely changed my opinion of the Chinese Olympic program. They deserve to win everything. Team USA deserves the Nike logo tattooed across their foreheads.

  6. Avatar suesun says:

    “you want to stay forever”……….. yes, yes, yes…..

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