The Lessons of the Beijing Olympics

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Shaun Botterill / Getty

The closing ceremonies on Sunday night in Beijing.

Could it really be over so quickly? Ever since the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the Summer Games in 2001, China had lavished $44 billion on transforming the capital into a city whose time was now. Stadiums were built, entire transportation networks laid out. The areas that couldn't be prettified in time were hidden behind Olympic billboards that would have made Grigori Potemkin proud. Lest visitors think that China was somehow not sophisticated enough to merit hosting the world's premier sporting spectacle, local residents were admonished not to wear more than three contrasting hues at the same time. At a time of national glory, it just wouldn't do to have clashing colors.

Meanwhile, Chinese athletes — who in Beijing garnered a record 51 gold medals, 15 more then the U.S. — had selflessly trained in sports that much of the local populace hardly knew anything about before the Games. No discipline was too esoteric in the pursuit of national pride. A gold medal in women's quadruple sculls rowing? Check. Men's 50m air rifle three positions? Check. Women's 75kg weightlifting? Check.

But on August 24, the extravaganza for which China had been grooming itself for so long ended with a 30 ton steel centerpiece called the Memory Tower, reaching five stories that came alive with acrobats dancing along its girders representing a huge human flame. The Olympic flame may be extinguished, but the Tower, the organizers explain, represents the "holy flame which will burn and never be extinguished in people's hearts."

The atmosphere was far different from the giddy expectation of August 8, when the Olympics kicked off. Then, there was a sense of anxiety among the Chinese of how they would be judged by the world. During the Opening Ceremony's one-hour cultural program, the hosts eagerly gave viewers around the world a Cliffs Notes history lesson. Dear exalted foreign guests, they seemed to say, did you know we Chinese have 5,000 years of history and that we invented paper and movable type and gunpowder? Pretty cool, don't you think?

But as the days wore on and the number of gold medals won by China's army of athletes piled up, the approval of outsiders seemed to become less important. The Olympics became a show for the locals. It helped, too, that stringent visa regulations had limited the influx of foreign tourists. The foreign press could be annoying and Beijing residents, who were always up to date with the medal count, were slightly miffed when question arose whether several medal-winning Chinese gymnasts might be underage. Polite applause for foreign competitors occasionally degenerated into boos or, just as bad, half-empty stadiums — this despite vows that all Olympic tickets had been sold. By the end of the Closing Ceremony, it was clear: Yes, the world had been invited to watch Beijing 2008. But this was China's Games. The rest of the world was just a bystander.

Granted, China put on a fabulous show. But sporting events are about more than just center stage — and questions about China's continuing political repression festered on the sidelines. Throughout the Games, stories trickled out of jailed dissidents, banned websites and curiously empty protest zones. Then, as though summoned by some kind of karmic force, the Olympics produced a parable for the Chinese. Like a one-man play on the perils of over-training and stifling national pressure, China's star hurdler Liu Xiang arrived in the Bird's Nest to run his first qualifying race — and then decided that it was all too much. The athlete who was supposed to be the face of China's Olympics turned his back to the crowds and limped off the track. After a shocked silence, the weeping announcers on Chinese TV intoned that it was acceptable to continue idolizing Liu because he had done his best. Very quickly, however, gold-medal fever returned, with by-the-minute updates on just how many victories the host nation had tallied.

The Chinese were obsessed with medals. At the Closing Ceremony, as the athletes flowed into the stadium, the medalists were ushered in first. It was a situation at odds with the egalitarian, celebratory mood but very much in line with a results-obsessed nation whose mission was to impress and, by impressing, to dominate. The athletes, unused to being distinguished from their teammates, appeared to be flummoxed, unsure of how to occupy the vast amount of space in the center of the Bird's Nest. Even during the pop interludes, the athletic participants were subdued, choosing to stand or sit rather than dance.

The Games are moving on. And Britain, which scored its best medal haul in a century, is a counterpoint to China. London has far less to prove than Beijing. It may have plenty of troubles: a congested city center, topsy-turvy real-estate prices. But lack of confidence is not one of London's problems. The Closing Ceremony's eight-minute preview spot for the upcoming host featured a charming double-decker bus loaded with a small cast of characters that included rocker Jimmy Page. The organizers of London 2012 said they didn't want to compete with the Closing Ceremony's cast of thousands — 7,000 performers, in fact, on top of the 15,000 used in the Opening Ceremony — employed by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who was in charge of both ceremonies. But small can delight, too.

Perhaps, looking back on Beijing 2008, we will judge the Games as the moment that China assumed the role of future superpower. Tokyo '68 was like that, heralding the emergence of what was to become the world's second-largest economy. Or, maybe, like Berlin '36, the Olympics will shine a light on a repressive, closed political system. The enduring legacy of Beijing 2008 won't be known for some time. For now, we can celebrate the accomplishments of swift Jamaicans and amphibious Americans and, most of all, a battalion of Chinese athletes who resoundingly displaced the U.S. atop the gold-medal count. These really were China's Olympics. With reporting by Alice Park/Beijing