June 4, 2008

Watching the Olympic Flame As It Lights Up China

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Like a waving silk ribbon, the crowd flowed up and down, up and down with a rhythm of passion and consistency. There were infants, parents, students, grandparents, workers, vagabonds, sports teams, security guards, corporate sponsors, ambassadors and too many other attendees to count or describe. They wore blue, yellow and red, some touted ornamented dragons on stilts, others wore traditional Chinese costumes, and many sported headbands and t-shirts with the “Beijing 2008” logo printed proudly across their fronts. But the artful varieties of their collective wardrobe were masked by the brilliant unity in their actions: they chanted vociferously “Go, China!” and swayed, swayed, swayed with a unified energy like a spectator crowd witnessing an ancient Roman gladiator battle.[img_assist|nid=30627|title=Hands up|desc=Enthusiastic spectators take it all in as the famed Olympic torch passes through Jingzhou, an ancient city in China’s Hubei Province. Courtesy of Ivy Council|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

As if they were watching the World Cup’s final soccer match, the crowd’s chants and enthusiastic gestures created an electric storm of human energy, a river of ebbing tides with a heated rise and drastic fall of waving, shouting and smiling. The thousands of passionate Chinese nationalists appeared excited to see their country host and compete in the highly-anticipated upcoming world event.

The scope of the crowd was intimidating — thousands upon thousands of people composed a human landscape that sprawled as far as the eye can see. They crowded the sidewalks and streets, covering every inch of the concrete ground below. They painted the storefronts with their colored wardrobe and settled on both banks of the Yangtze River that served as a dramatic backdrop to the monumental ceremony at hand: The Olympic torch relay in, Jingzhou, China, a city imbued with ancient history in Western China’s Wuhan province. The Ivy League delegation was fortunate to witness the event first-hand.

As our tour bus (which was studded with clear windows for easy visual access to the delegation members and their leaders inside) pulled up to the city center, the American college students on our trip might as well have been Elton John or David Beckham. We received an international welcoming in a similar fashion to (I presume) an international pop star or athlete. Heads turned and eyes stared — likely out of surprise and confusion — cameras clicked and flashed, and layers upon layers of Chinese people clapped and shouted on our behalf. We led the group in cheers, and prompted responses of magnanimous volume with a simple wave of a Chinese flag or hand gesture.[img_assist|nid=30628|title=An act to remember|desc=The torch lighting ceremony was short, but imbued with meaning. Traditional Chinese dance and speeches by local governing officials contributed to the memorable performance.Courtesy of Ivy Council|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

And then a moment of silence cut through the ruckus — the crowd thoughtfully remembered those who lost their lives in the recent Wenchuan earthquake (the death toll has topped 69,000 as of today). The thoughtful ceremony that followed was a remarkable display of Chinese culture and aesthetic masterwork. It conveyed the layered significance of the Olympics as not only an event of athleticism, but as one of patriotism, culture and unity among the people of a nation. All of about 15 minutes long, the ceremony consisted of a series of short acts and speeches that demonstrated the excitement and unification of the Chinese people. The crowd offered a thunderous applause as Zheng Lihui, a member of the men’s Olympics gymnastics team who won the gold medal in the 2006 summer games in Sydney, began the ceremony as the first torch bearer. The ceremony then featured a beautifully choreographed Chinese folk dance in which women in red cloaks performed on the stage to music from musicians playing the chimes along side them. City leader Huang Jianhong delivered a short speech in Chinese (due to the lack of translation, I have no idea what he said). The No. 3 torchbearer, Michael Cambanis, the Greek ambassador to China, delivered the flame on the Nine Dragon Bridge of the city. [img_assist|nid=30629|title=All together|desc=Members of the Ivy League Delegation pose with other spectators at the ceremony. Courtesy of Ivy Council|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

Finally, in a Disney-esque (visually dramatic, yet sentimental and undeniably enjoyable) display of colored smoke that shot up above the river and painted the gray sky above, as well as a series of low-scale fireworks that dazzled over the surface of the water right behind the stage, the ceremony ended with touching music blasting and the thousands of smiles. As the runner (and security guards around him) left the stage carrying the torch in hand, many ceremony attendees migrated out of the area and jogged down the street following the torche’s path as it continued on its journey to Beijing. All that was left to do was stand in awe.