Philip Barker

Those who were fortunate enough to be there will never forget the moment when gymnast Li Ning soared towards the heavens to light the Beijing 2008 Olympic Cauldron.

They will surely be intrigued to hear ceremony director Zhang Yimou promise an "unprecedented" method to light the Beijing 2022 Cauldron next month.

"This time, the way of lighting will certainly be different. I believe it is totally innovative and people will be surprised," he claimed last week.

Zhang, director of the 1990 film Ju Dou, the first Chinese picture to be nominated for an Oscar, takes charge of his second Olympic Opening Ceremony.

The details of what we will witness on February 4 remain a secret closely guarded, so it seems an appropriate moment to cast a glance back to the night of Friday August 8 in 2008. The date was carefully chosen because the number eight is auspicious in China.

Even so, Zhang admitted at the time that directing an Olympic Ceremony was "much more nerve-wracking than a movie".

No fewer than 15,000 took part in a show which began with 2,008 drummers beating a rhythm in unison on traditional fou drums.

"The rhythm of light conveys the concept of time. A great moment is forthcoming," said organisers.

It was an astonishing assault on the senses right at the very start.

Zhang Yimou, who directed the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony, is in charge again this year ©Getty Images
Zhang Yimou, who directed the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony, is in charge again this year ©Getty Images

Then "29 colossal footprints appear across the city towards the Olympic park in a series of firework explosions." This was not visible from the stadium itself except on the big screen, an admission the television audience is first and foremost in the minds of the producers.

As the final footprint burst into life, it triggered a fusillade of pyrotechnics above the stadium.

As the trail descended, Olympic Rings, each 10 metres in diameter, appeared on the floor of the stadium. These were elevated in a three-dimensional display of 45,000 LED beads.

The execution of the manoeuvre was flawless.

As the Chinese flag arrived, a performance of the Chinese patriotic song Hymn to the Motherland caused some controversy when it emerged that the girl who appeared to sing it had been lip-synching.

In fact, Luciano Pavarotti had done the very same thing at the Opening Ceremony for Turin 2006.

The flag was carried in by children wearing costumes which organisers claimed were from the 56 ethnic groups in China. It later transpired that not all the groups were represented in the procession.

The stadium had been constructed to accommodate a huge stage, with a vast area under the stage. It was claimed to be the first stadium designed with an Olympic Ceremony specifically in mind.

The first major set piece was entitled "Painting Scroll", to demonstrate the role of calligraphy and printing in the culture of the host nation, as dancers described ancient Chinese characters on the stadium floor.

There was a percussion piece featuring Chinese opera and a "festive scene" depicting the Terracotta Army.

Performers also created a symbolic version of a giant temple complete with columns, a sequence of the Chinese martial art taijiquan, a representation of the ancient silk route, complete with sailing junks, and a dove of peace created by performers who also built a bird's nest, reminiscent of the stadium itself. The remarkable visual light changes were created with the use of more LED costumes.

Star pianist Lang Lang played the Yellow River Concerto, joined by five-year-old child prodigy Li Muzi.

Thousands of drummers were in the Opening Ceremony cast for Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images
Thousands of drummers were in the Opening Ceremony cast for Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images

A huge globe provided a symbolic climax to the show before the entry of the teams. At the top, Chinese singer Liu Huan was joined by Sarah Brightman to sing the haunting official song You and Me.

"She [Brightman] dropped everything to come. Her voice is very beautiful and she was very suitable because a lot of Chinese people know her," Zhang explained.

"We warned her she would have to climb an earth eight stories high." he added.

"When I came out of the globe I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes," Brightman told Reuters later. "There were just hundreds of people who worked so hard, put their heart and soul in it, to make it look the way that it did."

The words were, "You and Me, from one world, we are family."

There was one further surprise, placards with thousands of smiling faces of children from across the world were displayed by volunteers.

The images had been collected by the Organising Committee over the previous year.

The parade of nations was the longest yet seen as 204 nations took part.

Chinese President Hu Jintao opened the Games.

The Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony is expected to be a more low-key affair ©Getty Images
The Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony is expected to be a more low-key affair ©Getty Images

The Olympic flag was raised to the strains of the Olympic anthem, sung in Greek in a tour de force by the choir of Chinese schoolchildren.

"They were very hard working, they had to learn a lot. All the kids did very well, they spent a long time practicing," Zhang said admiringly.

Then came the arrival of the Torch. Shooter Xu Haifeng had won China's first-ever gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

He was followed by a succession of other great Chinese champions, before at last the Relay reached the central stage. There stood Li Ning, winner of three gymnastics gold medals in 1984.

The big surprise came after he received the Torch. Suddenly he was swept upwards on a giant trapeze towards the roof of the stadium as the song You and Me was reprised.

Finally, Li lit a taper and the Cauldron burst into life high above the spectators.

"This is a glorious but huge task for anyone," Li said afterwards. "I did not want to let down the dream of millions of Chinese people and that is why I was nervous."

Afterwards an exhausted Zhang admitted: "We had one goal, to show the world an excellent Opening Ceremony. We did that!

"We worked together for three years overcoming hardship, difficulty and pain."

Zhang had not been the first from the cinema industry to be involved with an Olympic Opening Ceremony. Walt Disney had been put in charge of Squaw Valley's pageantry division for the 1960 Winter Games, at the resort now known as Palisades Tahoe.

Only 800 athletes paraded at a much simpler event where choirs drawn from nearly 40 California high schools provided the musical accompaniment.

Moscow 1980 raised the bar for Olympic Opening Ceremonies ©Getty Images
Moscow 1980 raised the bar for Olympic Opening Ceremonies ©Getty Images

That it was all much shorter proved a blessing because heavy snow fell beforehand and the storm only cleared just in time for American vice-president Richard Nixon to open the Games.

It wasn’t until 1980 that Moscow’s spectacle changed the whole landscape of Olympic Opening Ceremonies, although then, as with both ceremonies for Beijing, it was accused of "sportswashing" other aspects of the regime. It had Greek chariots, towers of gymnasts, and even a remarkable sequence of changing flashcards which prompted some Cold War "one-upmanship”" at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. 

The Americans had selected leading Hollywood producer David Wolper as their ceremonies commissioner. He included a stunt in which spectators displayed flashcards showing the flags of every participating nation.

The Opening of Winter Olympics up until that point had been modest in comparison, but Calgary in 1988 changed all that with a made-for-television extravaganza, complete with a giant First Nation teepee.

It was no accident that the permitted length of the Winter Games was extended for Calgary to allow for an Opening Ceremony and three full weekends of competition to please the television networks.

From 1992 onwards, all but one Olympic Opening Ceremony has been staged in the evening to allow the producers full rein to use theatrical lighting and spectacular special effects.

Although the cast for Beijing 2022 is anticipated to be only a fifth of the size of that in 2008, there seems little doubt that the event on February 4 will be very special, though certainly a little colder than that in 2008.