The firework footprints that walked up the city’s north-south axis to begin the spectacular opening ceremony suggested that Beijing’s hope of hosting the “greatest Olympics” would be fulfilled. In the days that followed, it became less clear whether the games, flawlessly executed, would live up to the hype.
Seven years of hard work had come down to weeks of frantic activity leading up to August 8. The problem was not infrastructure or Olympic venues, which had been completed with time to spare. Instead, as the city tried to ensure everything went according to plan, it found itself struggling with forces beyond its control.
Perhaps the most visible struggle, with pollution, led Beijing to unveil an emergency clean-air plan a week before the games. The city was unable to fend off the muck on the morning of August 8, but favorable weather conditions eventually brought blue skies.
Journalists were less cooperative than the weather. Many complained as Beijing’s promised relaxing of internet restrictions failed to materialize. Sites for banned groups like Falun Gong remained blocked.
Despite Beijing’s promises that foreign media would be given freedom to report, a Hong Kong photographer was detained while covering the chaotic last round of ticket sales in late July, and a television reporter with UK broadcaster ITN was roughed up by police when reporting on a pro-Tibet rally during the games.
Protests were small and scattered, and concentrated on Tibet and human rights issues. Official protest zones that had been designated in parks around the city were silent.
Even with tight security, an American tourist was stabbed to death in the city’s Drum Tower in an apparently random attack, casting a pall over the early days of the games.
But it was the opening ceremonies that most clearly showed Beijing’s controlling tendencies. Lin Miaoke, the girl chosen to sing “Ode to the Motherland” was lip-synching another, less attractive girl’s song, the footprint sequence was computer generated, and even the minority children paraded in ethnic costumes were later reported to have been members of the Han ethnicity.