Chinese athlete Li Ning (lower right) lights the Olympic flame above the National Stadium. (AP Photo)
BEIJING -- When an archer lit the Olympic torch with a bow and arrow at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the show-stopper earned praise and became the so-called gold standard of opening ceremony torch-lighting theatrics. And that has been the case for the last 16 years. But there may be a new torch-lighting ready to vie for the title.
On Friday, gold medal gymnast Li Ning "ran" on air around the stadium to light the torch. Wires and a harness lifted Li to the top rim of the stadium. Suspended in mid-air above 90,000 spectators, he ran around the stadium with the torch in hand. It was so incredible and unexpected, it took a while to figure out just what was happening. Once it was clear what Li would be doing, it was a mesmerizing, slow-motion display. As he ran around the top rim of the stadium, video images unfurled behind him as if they were on an ancient Chinese scroll. The video captured scenes from the torch relay that circled the globe. Still suspended, Li dipped his torch toward the caldron and it lit up, much to the delight of the audience.
The opening ceremonies closed with a barrage of fireworks. It was also shocking that the organizers didn't run out of fireworks long before the finale, considering how often they came into play during the first hour of the ceremonies.
"It was awesome," said US Taekwondo coach Jean Lopez. "The way they lit the torch was amazing. It's always the most anticipated part of the opening ceremonies and I was in complete awe. Beijing has delivered a great start to the Games."
From start to finish, the ceremonies were worth the hype. These types of events can typical turn into cheesy shows, but that was not the case for the Beijing opener. And not only was it artistically interesting, it was an education in Chinese history with easy-to-understand symbolism throughout.
Finally, the United States could learn a few things from the way the Chinese handle crowds. It may not be one of the four great ancient Chinese inventions, but they deserve some sort of recognition for getting 90,000 people out of the National Stadium without any delays. I expected a big hassle leaving the "Bird's Nest," especially since the stadium was unfamiliar to so many people, but it was quick and easy, and I was back to my hotel in 10 minutes. Again, the credit goes to China's army of Olympic volunteers. They were there literally every step of the way, guiding spectators to exits, transportation and hotels. At one point, there were two rows of volunteers side-by-side lining a pathway to guide spectators to the nearest exit. All the while, they waved and said, "Good bye. Thank you for coming." It wasn't a marked contrast from the flashy display of the opening ceremonies, but still a nice, welcome touch at the end of a long evening.