The greatest show the world has ever seen

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James Lawton on China's stunning opening ceremony to the Beijing games

It was all that was promised here in the fabulous chameleon of the stadium known as the Bird's Nest. It then spread like the magic fire of some great forest across the vast and, for so long, hidden land.

This, it was hard if not impossible to dispute, was the greatest show the world had ever seen and it brought joy that became delirium in 1.3 billion people.

The launch of the 29th Olympics was so stunningly choreographed, so meticulous planned – full dress rehearsals were under way more than a year ago – and went so far back into China's ancient history you suspected that Confucius himself might have been pleased.

The father of Chinese philosophy did, after all, like a party, once declaring: "Friends have come from afar and how happy we are."

Not all friends of modern China were in the stadium last night – the worldwide TV audience was estimated at more than 4 billion – but even one of its greatest critics, the watching American President George Bush, was obliged at times to gasp and muster something more than polite applause.

Such reaction peaked at the dramatically staged climax, when the final bearer of the torch that had been so regularly attacked on its route around the world, the former gymnast Li Ning, was whisked on wires around what seemed to be the very eaves of the stadium before igniting the great cauldron.

Then, thousands ran into the streets cheering and weeping.

It seemed like an extraordinary release for so much pent-up feeling by the people who are supposed to be nothing if not inscrutable.

What China and the world was seeing, though, was the greatest launching of the Olympics in the 112-year-history of the summer Games that started modestly in Athens, its former ancient home.

Last night's explosion of light and colour and, in the end, fierce emotion, inspired Jacques Rogge, the Belgian president of the International Olympic Committee, to declare: "One world – one dream. It is what we have tonight."

There were other realities, of course – there always are at the Olympics. Behind the scenes, Chinese officials were seething at what they believed was a calculated political ploy by the American government to draw a shadow across the soaring artistic success. This came with the decision by the American team, the spontaneity of which was questioned by the Chinese, of giving the honour of carrying the American flag in the athletes' parade to an obscure middle-distance runner, Lopez Lomong.

Lomong, competing in his first significant international meeting, was a surprise qualifier in the 1,500 metres event, scraping into third place. So why did he receive an honour normally granted to legendary Olympians such as Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses – and ahead of the 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres, who is competing in her fifth Olympics? It was, the Chinese asserted, entirely because Lomong is a recently naturalised refugee from the conflict in Dafur, where Chinese policy has come under increasing fire in America.

This was the final shaft of criticism in the week that started with Mr Bush's stinging attack on China's human rights record. The American counter-argument is that there was a surge of support for Lomong across different sports when his story was heard. He was reported to have lost members of his family in the Darfur fighting before escaping to Kenya. There, his running ability was a passport to America after watching the Olympics on a small black-and-white television. He was quoted saying: "People are famous for doing something that has always been my transport."

For the Americans, then, it is a sentimental story; for the Chinese, another means of criticising them at a time of national triumph. Yet for a few hours last night the beauty and drama of China's version of its own history, seemed to have produced an international coming-out party to carry the world's most populous, and fast-developing nation, beyond the sniper fire of its most relentless critics. The artistic director, Zhang Yimou, was the most relieved man in China last night. He said that he had increasingly felt the burden of his nation's honour, adding: "For two years we have been working to perfect the task and it has been very arduous. There is a Chinese phrase about the most difficult tasks facing anyone. They are known as 'glorious and arduous.' This was all of that but it so was rewarding to see the reaction of everyone.

"What do the Olympic Games mean to the ordinary Chinese? Many would speak of their great significance and profound meaning but I heard someone say, 'They are for all our guests ... we should make them happy."

Zhang Yimou's vision and artistic thrust is revealed in a series of notes. They describe how he came to his theme of China arriving at a changing point in its history. The notes were mostly concerned with the sweep and the rhythm of time, and the need to emphasise the Chinese grasp of their own history.

His starting point – "a dazzling light activating an ancient sundial, and then a series of special effects ... the sundial reflects the light on to the ancient fou. The fou is the ancient Chinese percussion instrument made of clay or bronze. In as early as the Xia and Shang dynasties there was the performance of the fou ..."

The fou reproduces the effect of thunder and so it was in the Bird's Nest stadium. It grew in the stadium and spread its way across the old city, and long before the storm was over even veteran observers of Olympic ritual were convinced that what they were seeing was unique in its impact and its range of emotion. This witness, who can go back to the Montreal Games of 1976, has to rate it the winner by a wide margin.

Perhaps both significantly and ironically, the nearest challenger is the effort of Seoul in 1988, when great churning war galleons stunningly represented the eternal battles of the Ying and the Yang. That uplifting theme seemed somewhat out of place a week later when Ben Johnson, who had shattered the world 100 metres record 48 hours earlier with an astonishing time of 9.79, was revealed to be chock full of steroids.

Here, the glories and the idealism of last night's extraordinary show will come under immediate threat when the first winning sportsmen and women are obliged to take drug tests. In China's desire to build new prestige over the next few weeks, a positive test by any of their leading athletes would bring devastating loss of face. But then such a delicate balance has existed in Olympic sport since the dramatisation of Ying and Yang and the fall of Johnson.

In Sydney eight years ago, the Australians put on splendidly organised Olympics in Sydney, with enthusiastic volunteers flying in from places as far away as the Queensland bush. The opening ceremony was fair dinkum too – but, having built an Olympic complex that would never be used fully in the following years, they also found that they were the innocent partners in another Olympic fraud.

Marion Jones, Sydney's Superwoman, would soon enough be exposed as one of the most shameless of the drug cheats. The American sprinter went to Australia with the aura of potentially the greatest woman athlete of all time.

Four years ago the Greeks overspent desperately, put on a fine opening ceremony, then watched in horror as their leading male and female sprinters literally ran away from the drug testers.

Now the Chinese enter that same dangerous ground after a show which left all rivals trailing. After last night's performance of beauty and drama fit for the Olympic gods, they now send their fiercely drilled athletic army against the traditional might of the United States. They have committed vast financial investment and man and woman hours into the ambition of finishing ahead of the Americans, and some are suspicious that against the background of such intense hopes some shortcuts may have been taken.

It means that all the nationalistic zeal which has disfigured the Olympics over the years could dwindle in comparison to the sports war zone that China and America enter tomorrow as they collide on the basketball court.

The match, which pits the giant Chinese star of the Houston Rockets, Yao Ming, against one of American sport's great superstars, Kobe Bryant, will, in its way, be as compelling for the hosts as last night's pyrotechnics.

But then it will not explore the nation's past, and possibly make a statement about its future with such spectacle and verve. It will return the Olympics to the trenches.

Whatever happens on the court, however, the Chinese – and the Olympics – will always have the night that captured the world.

Here in the small hours Beijing and, we are told, all of China was still aflame with the glory of the night. There was laughter and weeping and immense pride. Those who spoke English asked every foreigner they encountered their opinion on what they had seen.

Was it really the greatest show the world had ever seen? They had to be told that maybe it was. It is perhaps just as well, however, that they were not pressing to know what will happen when the smoke has cleared.

It is a question that perhaps even Confucius might have ducked.

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