The key participants got precisely what they wanted out of the Olympic opening ceremonies: China threw a lavish, spectacular “coming-out party,” as NBC’s Bob Costas rightly characterized it, full of precision and grace; meanwhile, NBC’s gilded ratings demonstrate it’s still occasionally possible for broadcasters to mount unique events that capture the public’s attention and imagination as nothing else can, even in an age of new technology that made a 30-second recap of the sprawling show available on YouTube hours before the delayed primetime telecast. By those criteria, pass out the gold medals all around.
Not that coverage of the ceremony was without its flaws. While Costas remains smooth and authoritative in this grand showcase — at one point announcing that in terms of Olympic presentations, after China’s $300-million effort from director Zhang Yimou, they can “retire the trophy” — “Today” host Matt Lauer often sounded as if he was doing just another Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The obligatory parade of nations also seems to go on forever, though it’s hard to criticize what amounts to the only geography lesson many Americans are apt to endure, albeit on a biennial basis.
The night got off to a rocky start with NBC’s montage of athletes saying “It’s not the triumph, but the struggle,” which resembled a bad Nike commercial. The network segued into a Tom Brokaw piece about China and some of the controversies surrounding it, including human-rights issues pertaining to Tibet and Sudan.
From there, though, it was all smiles, cascading drums, more dazzling wire work than “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” surreal human waves of activity that brought to mind visuals from the best Terry Gilliam films, and the imposing sight of towering basketball star Yao Ming leading the massive Chinese delegation into the stadium accompanied by a child survivor of China’s recent devastating earthquake. Filled with pyrotechnics, Lauer described the spare-no-expense program as “a cinematic blockbuster in real time.”
A cynic, of course, could scoff at the level of stagecraft — all that synchronized movement being a not-so-subtle advertisement for the business-minded Beijing government’s plans to bolster China’s stature in the global economy. Still, the ideal of the Olympic Games has a way of producing lump-in-the-throat moments among all but the most jaded, if only in the contrast of tiny delegations with two or three athletes (Vanuatu and Gambia, welcome!) to the U.S., as fellow Olympians clamored to have their picture taken with superstar Kobe Bryant.
Yet even recognizing the calculation that went into China’s pursuit of the Olympics as a platform to burnish its image, at least in terms of the opening, the country’s leaders can say “Mission accomplished” without a sense of doubt or irony.
As for NBC and its assorted channels that will join in the around-the-clock coverage, the Games can be applauded in part because they will occupy so much time on MSNBC over the next two weeks — following a day in which the channel joined the rest of cable news by taking former presidential candidate John Edwards’ admission to an extramarital affair as license to embed itself in his underpants.
From that perspective — against the backdrop of the campaign’s silly season — the Opening Ceremonies served as a reminder that these games of summer should provide a welcome respite from those that lie ahead of us.