Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, conceived of the Games as a global melding of body, will and mind. His ambitions were grand, but the Frenchman's worldview barely extended beyond Europe. In the 1896 inaugural Olympics, only 14 nations competed. Not a single Asian country was invited.
When the Beijing Olympics began on August 8, 2008 at 8:00 p.m 8 being an auspicious number in Chinese with a brilliant orgy of 35,000 fireworks and the thunderous percussion of 2,000 ancient drums, there was no question that the East now mattered. Asia has hosted the Summer Games twice before Tokyo '64 and Seoul '88 but this Olympics represents the aspirations of one-fifth of humanity. For 60 minutes, more than 15,000 Chinese performers marched and twirled and beamed with such flawless precision that it was as if the previous five millennia of Chinese history were merely a dress rehearsal for this moment.
The night's maestro was Zhang Yimou, a film director better known abroad for his sweeping epics evoking the hardships of Communist rule. The show fast-forwarded through the glories of ancient Chinese civilization: the invention of gunpowder and movable type, the building of the Great Wall. The overriding message, though delivered, admittedly, with the earnest phraseology of Chinese officialdom, was clear. "Imbued with the finest element of Eastern flavor," stated Liu Qi, the president of the Beijing Organizing Committee, "this grand gala will act as a showcase of a 5,000-year-old civilization."
For a nation that won its first Olympic gold medal in 1984, China's athletic ascent, like its economic growth, can only be described with superlatives. By 2004, the People's Republic was just four medals shy of the gold-medal harvest of the U.S. This time around, China could well occupy the top spot in the medal tally. But the Olympics are about more than East and West, North and South or, indeed, medal tables. The movement now boasts more members than the United Nations. At the Opening Ceremony, more than 10,500 athletes marched together, representing 204 republics, theocracies, city-states, protectorates and even a certain island that competes under the name of Chinese Taipei. Three Olympic debutantes appeared in Beijing: Montenegro, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, a South Pacific nation whose very existence is threatened by global warming. China's flagbearer Yao Ming, at 2.29 m (7 ft. 6 in.) the Games' tallest Olympian, loped along the same path as 1.43 m (4 ft. 8 in.) American gymnast Shawn Johnson. Four athletes from Iraq, which in July had been banned briefly from the Games because of a tiff with the International Olympic Committee, got one of the night's biggest cheers, after the hosts. Even China's historical rival Japan received polite applause. The Olympics may be composed of nations, but its spirit transcends nationalism.
As at all modern Olympics, politics was not far away. Protesters of everything from China's role in Darfur to the continuing repression of Tibet had tried to use the Games to highlight their causes. But long ago, loose talk of an Olympic boycott had fizzled. On opening night, sitting in the splendor of the Bird's Nest Stadium, were two men who have at times been among China's most vocal Western critics: George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. They knew this was China's moment. Back in the Middle Kingdom's heyday, dignitaries from elsewhere in the world would come to pay tribute to the Emperor, an acknowledgement of China's power. As legendary gymnast Li Ning, a six-time Olympic medalist and sporting-wear tycoon, soared through midair to light the Olympic cauldron, the world bore witness to the unmistakable fact that China was back in a blaze of glory. With reporting by Sean Gregory and Alice Park/Beijing