Saturday, August 16, 2008

New Contributor!

Hello readers! As you may have noticed, I fell off the face of the earth. This was a sad ocurrance, one filled with sorrow and regret for all the fun that has been had for the past month. Time does not stop for the Olympics, as it turns out.

It is with great excitement and the promise of new and great things that we here at Mount Olympics welcome a new contributor, Emily (who you may know from the only comments this blog ever gets). In celebration, I will post a portion of a wonderful email she sent me when I tragically missed the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Prepare yourselves for something beautiful. Also long. But beautiful, so beautiful.

In China, the hydraulics are run by people!

Or in other words, when you have an unlimited budget, a billion people standing around waiting to walk upside down on a giant inflatable globe, and an authoritarian regime that says "Give us the biggest spectacle in world history! I mean ever!", you can really put on a show.

It was pretty cool.

It started with 2008 drummers (there were 2008 of everything. You know how normally, like in Salt Lake for example, you have maybe 150 performers and people are really impressed? China has so many performers at its disposal that when you looked at things from the top of the stadium, it appeared pixellated.) Each drummer had a big square drum that lit up when they touched it, and there were wave effects, and star bursts, and water droplets, and finally a one-minute countdown clock (this is so hard to describe. You have two blocks of 1004 drummers arranged in two giant rectangles, right? And seen from the top, each drum is a light cell. And the drummers alternate hitting their drums so that the numbers "60, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1" blink on and off, dance across the screen, etc. It was like the world's biggest digital readerboard, basically, powered by percussion.) When the countdown reached one, fireworks start going off from Tiananmen Square all the way down to the stadium, and when they go off they are shaped like giant footprints. Specifically, the Footprints of History. And then they get to the stadium, and fireworks go off around the rim of the stadium for a while. I have a personal theory that whenever President Bush started to look bored, someone in the back was like, "quick, wake him up! More fireworks!" This happened...a lot.

The drummers finish their drumming thing, and Matt Lauer, who I think was expecting something on the order of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade because the EPICNESS of the night was sort of lost on him, helpfully pointed out that earlier in the day when they were rehearsing, 2008 serious-faced Chinese men in silvery suits banging on gigantic drums, the effect was kind of intimidating. So apparently they were told to smile more. And boy, were they smiling. I want to believe they were actually outrageously excited to be there, which seems likely, but then again if the director of the Beijing Olympics told you to look happy, dammit, you'd probably look happy regardless.

Then the drummers rolled off stage with amazingly little bustle, although we might have missed it during the commercials. Budweiser was recycling the last several years' worth of its Super Bowl ads (The Great American Lager! Now Made By Belgium!) but everyone else was more on message. Visa's were pretty great (Go World!). Then some fairies started flying around in harnesses. Matt Lauer said they represented the three great Chinese philosophical traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, but I think he didn't know what he was talking about. They were fairies. Oh, and the Olympic rings floated around for a while too, looking very sparkly. Then 56 small children wearing the costumes of China's 56 ethnic groups, which universally included white lacy socks and mary janes, and sometimes cowboy hats (who knew?) brought in the flag, and it was raised, and a little girl sang the national anthem. Yay, China.

Next another fairy, or possibly a bodhisattva, was carried in while dancing on a giant canvas platform held up by a few thousand men. Then the fairies and the men went away, leaving the giant canvas on the ground, where it unrolled into what we were told was the world's biggest LED screen. It looked like a hundred foot long video Torah. AND THEN the Dancing Calligraphers came on. They were about 15 modern dancers in black costumes that were somehow covered in markers or ink or something, because while they were dancing they were making a giant landscape painting. Like a couple of them would do this rolling-leapy thing, and then there would be a mountain range. And one of them would spin with his leg on the ground, and suddenly there was a sun. It was CRAZY. (Wikipedia says they "left their squirming trails on a block of white paper," which does not capture it at all.) I want to know where THAT kind of dance is offered.

NOTE: There has to have been some magic involved in this next part. The giant scroll-painting thing kept showing up throughout the night, and yet it also kept turning into completely different things and then reappearing with no explanation. Stupid TV. By the time we'd heard from Budweiser again (This Is Beer!) the scroll had become a giant Chinese printing press. For real. It was a giant square of big grey blocks, each with a Chinese character on the top, that moved up and down to form lines from the Analects, ripples of water, etc., etc., etc., and eventually the Great Wall, which then exploded into cherry blossoms. This section went on for like 10 minutes, and you can imagine the intense discussions going on among us watching at home about how they were doing this. Computer-operated hydraulics was the best guess. BUT NO! Why, indeed, would a country with more manpower than anything else waste things like electricity when they could just use people standing up and down! At the very end, after the cherry blossoms, the blocks popped open and more (smiling) performers stuck their heads out and waved.

Okay. At this point, I am reading the Wikipedia article to refresh my memory, and I am pretty sure it was written by Chinese propagandists. It's hilarious. If you get a chance, go look at it and revel in the "a sea of rainbow-coloured luminescent performers swayed in wave-like unison to symbolize the flow of the Yellow River"-osity. I would probably have described the rainbow-colored luminescent performers as a couple thousand girls in fancy dresses while the American commentators made ridiculous comments about how all Chinese women are this graceful, as a rule. (What annoyed me about this was not so much the racial stereotyping as the lack of credit to the performers' dance training. And their rainbow-luminosity...thingy.) Actually, while the costumes were super impressive and the dancing was pretty, it wasn't all that exciting compared with the rest of the evening. Next, to celebrate China's glorious naval history (we did a lot of celebrating how great China has been since basically forever. It turns out there's a lot there to have spectacle about!) they brought in another couple thousand guys each carrying a giant canoe paddle. They were painted such that the performers could group together and make a screen with their paddles showing a picture of old Chinese warships. They could also make warships OUT of the canoe paddles by sweeping them around in various ways. It doesn't sound that exciting, but the effect was way cool.

[Forming a circle of dancers isn't just difficult.] It's HARD. Even approximate circles are hard, when you have a group of 8 or so people moving as a group. Okay, now picture, you guessed it, 2000 people, all individually doing crazy tai chi/karate stuff, IN TEN RINGS OF PERFECT CONCENTRIC CIRCLES. I don't know how they did that. It was phenomenal. Meanwhile, the giant canvas from the body-painting exercise is still on the floor, having recovered from its giant printing press incarnation, and a large pile of happy children are playing on it reciting confucian poetry and improving the painting. While the crazy concentric circles of karate go on around them. This, and I am not making this up, symbolized the environmental challenges the future generation would face and need to overcome, as the forces of nature react to mankind's abuse. It's there to show China's commitment to having a green Games.

Yes. It's comforting to know that in the fight against global warming, China will bring the tai chi artists. And the chanting schoolchildren. I can't imagine why no one ever thought of this before. And, by the way, fireworks are going of pretty much this whole time.

But it's okay, because you know the children are going to triumph over this challenge! And the way you know that is when they get up and leave, the sun on the giant canvas painting now has a ridiculously cute smiley face on it! True story!

Once again, I am not sure what they did to the canvas to accomplish this next part. Because China has entered the Space Age, and a giant globe (no, really) is emerging from the center of the stadium floor. It's kind of like a paper Japanese lantern, only it's like 50 feet tall, lit up like the planet Earth, and has Sarah Brightman and some Chinese singer standing on top. Oh, and in between every one of the horizontal ribs (keep thinking of the Japanese lantern, it will help) there are a dozen people running horizontally along its surface. They had fun with the flying harnesses, these folks did. This was my favorite part. And in the meantime--did I mention that the upper rim of the entire stadium was also a giant movie screen? It was currently broadcasting pictures of the universe.

Eventually the giant globe went away, and I was kind of sad about that. I could have watched that for a long time. But in its place, lest we forget that China hasn't run out of people yet, came 2008 guys in bright green unitards that lit up with blue and green christmas lights at various times. And they danced around quite a bit, and made a giant dove, and the poor guys in the wings had to run back and forth to make the dove fly. Matt Lauer had gone on a bit of a tangent at this point and was waxing poetic about how China has emerged from the authoritarian darkness of communism and was now filled with the peaceful, happy prospect of people choosing their own destinies! And buying American debt! And then he went back to his performance-related tidbit cue cards, and informed us (practically in the same breath as this paean to Chinese individual self-determinism) that two days before the show, the director decided he didn't like the existing unitards, which were black, and demanded that another 2008 be made in green. Because once again, when someone comes to your Beijing costume shop and says "I need 2008 new costumes made by tomorrow," you say "Yes sir, how high?" Somehow Lauer's head didn't explode here. It was a little disappointing.

The length of this is getting absurd, I hope you're reading in installments. So I'll pass quickly over the parade of athletes with the following details:
  • The whole stadium was flanked by probably 2008 cheerleaders in white skirts and high-heeled white cowboy boots, who had to stand up and clap and stomp and cheer for about two and a half hours. And it was so hot that the heads of state were dripping. Those girls had the worst job of the evening, for serious.
  • The girls who carried the signs in front of each country had MUCH better dresses than the ones from Turin. Much more with the red and gold silk and much less with the ski slope dioramas on ON THE SKIRT.
  • Canada's fashion sense has improved moderately since the last Olympics, but the Americans got hijacked by a Ralph Lauren makeover team which makes them look like a lost yachting club in absurd hats. The Hungarians, even more unfortunately, showed up wearing red and white splotched tablecloths. As usual, most of the Africans were wearing caftans that were a) gorgeous b) regal and c) really comfortable looking.
  • We're not done with the canvas yet--oh no! It was lying on the ground in the middle of the arena again, and this time there were giant ink pads in front of it in rainbow colors. As the athletes marched up the center, they walked through the ink and tracked a rainbow onto the paper. This Olympics is all about the bodily art, I guess.
  • Vladimir Putin gets docked for Class A BAD FORM for starting a war from the Olympics. You should not be allowed to DO that.
  • China's flag was carried in by Yao Ming, accompanied by an eight-year-old boy who came approximately up to his knee. For a minute we thought it was comic relief, and they explained that he was from Sichuan, and had dug himself out of the rubble of his school after the earthquake and then rescued two of his classmates before any adults found them. When they asked him why he hadn't just run away when he got out, he said he was a class leader and he was supposed to make sure everyone got out safely. So that was...oof.
Okay, enough athletes, it's all about them now anyway. But first the torch! I was so excited for this part. They ran it in, passed it off to various former Chinese athletes around the stadium, and then when it got to the last guy...yes! He FLEW! And then he RAN, in slow motion, THROUGH THE AIR, ALL THE WAY AROUND THE TOP OF THE STADIUM, while the screen behind him played images of the whole torch relay minus the protests, and then he lit the end of a long pipe that carried the flame up the torch in a giant spiral and then stayed lit. And then there were more fireworks than I have ever seen. And it was AWESOME.

Okay, it's Lexie again. I have a question for Emily, perhaps to start us off. What is the most ridiculously misplaced expression of patriotism you have seen so far at the games? Describe and provide photos where available.


Emily said...

Oh, that's gonna have to go to the Georgian men's beach volleyball team. They're a couple of guys from Brazil (which Russia did not fail to point out when they lost to them in the semis), but they showed their true Georgian colors by changing their last names to Geor and Gia, respectively.

I mean, I know this is the Olympics of Georgia Getting To Do Whatever It Wants, but come on. Geor and Gia? Really?

Lex said...

How is it possible this was a year ago??