Games filled with triumph and drama

The Olympics came to an end with a Closing Ceremony that put an exclamation mark on a fortnight filled with triumph, tragedy and unending drama.

Breathtaking pyrotechnics transformed the Bird’s Nest on Sunday into a halo of light, while gymnasts in fluorescent costumes sprang around the Olympic stadium on wires, to the cheers of the partying athletes gathered below.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page heralded the London 2012 Olympics with some killer licks, and Hong Kong legend Jackie Chan led a galaxy of Chinese singers to end the evening on an ecstatic note.

The Beijing Olympics finished very much in the style in which it began with an awe-inspiring spectacle that thrilled auds in the 91,000-seat stadium, as well as the hundreds of millions watching on TV. Both events were carefully choreographed by China’s masterly helmer, Zhang Yimou.

In the same stadium where the world’s fastest man, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, produced sprints that left the world shaking its head in wonder, more than 1,100 dancers with jingling silver bells formed shapes in the stadium before the arrival of two “heavenly drums.”

A giant videoscreen around the rim of the stadium replayed the greatest images of Beijing 2008, while a 23-meter “memory tower” became a centerpiece for the evening’s action.

Intl. Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge declared the “truly exceptional” Beijing Games closed, and told competitors: “You have shown us the unifying power of sport. The Olympic spirit lives in the warm embrace of competitive rivals from nations in conflict. Keep that spirit alive when you return home.”

As home to the 2012 Games, London was represented by Mayor Boris Johnson, who struggled gamely to wave the Olympic flag, while David Beckham did what he does best, kicking a ball– but from the top of a double-decker bus. The bumbling mayor and the crop-haired epitome of British celeb culture were a reminder that the London Olympics will be more eccentric, probably funnier and certainly more celebrity-mad than the Beijing Games. To prove it, popular thrush Leona Lewis accompanied Page in a storming rendition of “Whole Lotta Love.” (China was probably on firmer ground when Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and Chinese singer Song Zuying sang a stirring version of “Flame of Love.”)

The weeks that were

This was an Olympics staged beneath clear blue skies in a dynamic city.

But it’s also been an Olympics of opposites.

On the one hand, there was the spectacular opening (despite concerns about lip-syncing lasses and the use of CGI for some fireworks), the excellent organization of events and the warmth of the Beijing people.

A fierce security crackdown meant no bomb attacks. And a similarly draconian clampdown on dissent, which defied Olympic promises about freedom of expression, has left foreign and domestic human-rights protesters waving their banners at the fringes of the world’s biggest sporting event, far from the broader consciousness of billions of viewers.

But there were some masked realities: In the run-up to the Games, thousands of Beijing residents were removed for the Olympic makeover, dissidents were rounded up and 400,000 security officials patrolled the streets.

And for many groups lobbying for more freedoms in China, the Olympics have been a disaster.

The Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing says that since the beginning of the Olympic period, it had received more than 30 confirmed cases of interference with reporters, including 10 cases of violence against journalists — more than the total number confirmed in 2007.

But among the Chinese, there is hope the goodwill generated by the Games will combine with the generosity of spirit the country witnessed following the Sichuan earthquake in May to produce a gentler but more confident China.

President Hu Jintao has promised further reforms post-Olympics, even hinting at elusive political reform.

“While constantly deepening economic reform and achieving sound and fast economic and social development, we will continue to pursue comprehensive reforms, including reforms of the political system,” he said.

For the rest of the year, the government’s attention will turn to the economy and to celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the launch of the reform policies that have swept away state controls over much of economic life.

It remains to be seen if the Olympic spirit is enough to teach China to accept criticism — and keep on a path of reform.

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