Watching the closing ceremonies of the XXIX Olympiad was not only a pleasure to the senses, it was a fitting and inspiring tribute to the Olympic spirit. As with most closing ceremonies, it was less flash and dazzle (though it certainly had plenty) than the opening ceremonies, and more cheer and fun – with the exception of the majestic ceremonial hand-off to London. The massive red-orange banners unfurled to almost fill the open top of the huge stadium created a dramatic backdrop for the remainder of the night.
While the edge of the opening shows was slightly blunted in the closing in favor of a happier display of merry-go round dancing (and, oh yes, the waving and spinning of colorful flags), the detail was all still there. The only off-note was the appearance of the red two-decker London bus laden with a smattering of dancers straight out of a garden-variety West End show-tune. Out-of-place as those dancers looked in this hall of majesty and grace on a massive scale - jumping around in their gumbo of individualistic frumpy costumes and each dancing seemingly to their own modern dance drummer - things only got worse with the appearance of U.K. pop star Leona Lewis singing mildly suggestively “Whole Lotta Love” to a guitar-playing 80-year old-looking refugee from Led Zeppelin. Even the poor Miss Lewis seemed to recognize the awkwardness of their position. What were they thinking? Mini-Super Bowl show? If this was the introduction of what London has planned for us in 2012, we need to start lowering our standards right away - we only have four years.
Twenty-seven centuries ago, in the belief that there is a glory in the human body as well as in its spirit, man decreed that his body and mind coalesce, to engage in a competition of skill and endurance; and so endeavoring for the best within him, man made his spirit soar.
As we were immediately pushed to move on to the contentious and harsh, partisan hyperbole of the conventions of the national parties, with the glow of the extinguished Olympic flame still a fresh memory and its ashes still cooling, I longed for a last moment of reflection over the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
Among all the events, festivals, contests, holidays, celebrations, and gatherings of any kind created since the dawn of humankind, the modern Olympics stand alone as the one place, the one time, where human beings of all places and races, all ideologies and all religions, ignore all that divides them and sets them apart - even against each other - and agree to join in peace, and play.
ARE WE ANYTHING LIKE THEM?
So we watched as more than 11,000 athletes from 204 nations arrived to compete in twenty-eight different sports, from age 12 to 67 (equestrian), in 302 contests that awarded medals and nothing more. Most athletes won nothing. Most nations won nothing. Yet, we saw displayed a new understanding of the capabilities of that incredible machine that is the human body. We saw dozens of new world records set across all disciplines, age barriers broken in women’s track and women’s swimming, and a new record of Olympian dominance by a single athlete garnering eight gold medals for himself (only five whole countries got more gold). Watching them all, one could not help but share in their joy of triumph and their heartbreak in defeat. Most of all, with admiration and respect, and perhaps a bit of envy, we marveled at the Olympic flame-sized desire, the innate physical gifts, and the undaunted courage that put these fellow members of the human race in the ring and on the field, in the water and through the air; perhaps hoping that in some small way, there is something of them in ourselves.
A special note of honor is owed those hapless twelve U.S. and European protesters who were immediately detained for the duration, and then deported back to their homes. Their cause was just, and their effort, Quixotic though it was, was still noble. But, only twelve out of hundreds of millions of young people? What a poetic, if sad number. Perhaps the usual activists don't see the need to risk their necks in Beijing, when they can practice their craft safely and comfortably in San Francisco, London, or Paris. Special respect is due to those 75 or so Chinese citizens who dared expose their government’s false offer of protest permits, and were immediately arrested upon applying for them. They will not be deported to the safety of a Western home country. One hopes we have something of them in ourselves as well.
Yes, it is true that China is a nation of many deep ills and dark impulses: Its abuse of minorities and dissidents, its brutal oppression of Tibet, its bullying of Taiwan, its horrendous fouling of the earth, its disinterested enabling of Darfur’s genocidal killers, its broken free speech promises – all these things are inexcusable. There will be a time to address these things more firmly. For now, we can recognize and concede without losing one’s basic sense of decency that China is also a nation of shining grandeur and promise; of gentle beauty and meticulous grace; even one with a generous spirit as displayed by the Chinese audiences’ warm treatment towards the foreign athletes competing against their own. And, it seemed evident that China’s people as a whole, oppressed as they may be, were truly happy with what they had achieved and showed the world in those incredible nineteen days of August. It was their 100-year old national dream made true. Watching that closing celebration unfold, I could not help but be happy for them, and even be inspired by them.
Even the Holy Powers above appeared to favor them on this occasion, sending shower storms that cleaned out the ever-present toxic haze of pollutants that threatened to spoil the outdoor events. Nothing the Chinese did to clear their air worked. Then, on the day of the first outdoor events, withholding until the last moment as if to show who is really in charge, Mother Nature seemingly gave Beijing’s games her blessing, and delivered to the city its clearest skies in twenty years.
And so it was that twenty-seven centuries after the first Greek city-states laid down their weapons to play games in peace, for nineteen days in the eighth month of the year 2008 A.D., in the space of a few acres, all of the nations of the earth gathered - and man’s spirit soared. Beijing’s motto promised “One world one dream.” Now, slogans rarely deliver the truth. But, this one got very close. To use Michelle Obama’s words delivered days later in Denver, on an only slightly different topic; in that very brief time, and very small space that did not go beyond the walls of the Olympic venues, we had what we all dream: “The world as it should be.”
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