Saturday, August 9, 2008

China to Open Long-Sought Olympics

China walked onto the world stage and soared over it. At last playing its long-sought role as Olympic host, China opened the Summer Games in spectacular fashion with an extravaganza of fireworks and pageantry dramatizing its ascendance as a global power. The potential TV audience was 4 billion worldwide for what was certainly the costliest and probably the largest opening ceremony in Olympic history.

Disasters, environmental problems and human-rights disputes preceded the games, and questions abound about how they will unfold. However, for an evening, at least for the 91,000 people packed into the new National Stadium, it was an interlude of magic and fervor, which is capped by the spellbinding sight of a skywalking, torchbearing gymnast floating around the stadium's top rim before sending a torrent of fire upward to light the Olympic flame.

The centerpiece was the parade of athletes, climaxing with the entry of the 639-strong Chinese team. Its flag-bearer was basketball idol Yao Ming, accompanied by 9-year-old schoolboy Lin Hao, a survivor of May's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. Moreover, a chanting, flag-waving crowd gave a thunderous welcome, and erupted again a few moments later when President Hu Jintao declared the games open.

President Bush, which is the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the glittering roster of notables who endured heat and humidity to watch China make this bold declaration that it had arrived. Bush, rebuked by China after he raised human-rights concerns this week.

China is given a great chance of overtaking the U.S. atop the gold-medal standings with its legions of athletes trained intensely since childhood. One dramatic showdown will be in women's gymnastics, where the U.S. and Chinese teams are co-favorites; in the pool, Chinese divers and U.S. swimmers are expected to dominate.

China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games investing $40 billion to build Olympic infrastructure, reeling from the Sichuan earthquake, struggling right through Friday to diminish the stubborn smog that enveloped the stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. China's detentions of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its economic ties to Sudan, home of the war-torn Darfur region, fueled persistent criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an Olympic boycott.

Second-guessed for awarding the games to Beijing seven years ago, the International Olympic Committee stood firmly by its decision. It was time, the committee said, to bring the games to the homeland of 1.3 billion people, a fifth of humanity.

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