An immediate rumour after the opening ceremony at the Beijing Games was that an emergency meeting of the British Olympic Committee was convened in order to find an excuse for cancelling London 2012. There might have been even greater panic because Britain is expected to produce a ‘performance’ of eight minutes as part of the closing ceremony in two weeks’ time. Beckham kicking a football was believed to be billed as the British climax, but if that’s all he would be doing, the meaning of ‘damp squib’ might well assume a new dimension.
One could well understand the British alarm, given the phantasmagorical display of brilliance that the Chinese team put together under the maniacal direction of Mr Zhang Yimou, whose supreme delicacy and elegance found in his early films such as Raise the Red Lantern gave way to a fevered explosion of bombast and spectacle. The extravaganza was a gargantuan success — every aspect of anticipation satisfied, every ounce of excitement fulfilled — and every sceptic and party-pooper, not to mention terrorist, entirely frustrated. The army of Chinese officials with individual Olympic responsibilities must have felt a huge relief from a reign of many sleepless nights. The Politburo would have nodded with satisfaction, and most of the Chinese population filled with pride. Every foreign visitor I met afterwards (the Fosters, Schwarzmans, Mittals, Sachses and Tessa Jowell, etc) gushed with praise in the firm belief that they had just witnessed the most outstanding live performance of their life.
But the night was insufferably hot and drenched in humidity. Unless one was a head of state, of whom there were 94, there was no escape from sweating through a long hike towards the stadium with five hours to spare.