This Day in History: The 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

By Grace Mulamba, August 8, 2022

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On August 8, 2008 at 8pm, the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing commenced. The stunning Zhang Yimou-directed ceremony which had an extremely auspicious start date and time, 8pm on 8/8/08  officially kicked off the first Olympic Games to be hosted by the Middle Kingdom.

Yao Ming
Yao Ming carries the national flag for Team China during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The motto of “One World, One Dream,” the 2008 games were a milestone achievement for China, and presented the perfect opportunity for the country to strut its stuff on the world stage. Within the country, there was lots of hype in the lead up to the event. For the 100-day countdown, a star-studded music video for the feature song ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ was released, featuring Jackie Chan, Eason Chan and more.

As is the way with an Olympic Games, Beijing experienced massive infrastructure and transport renovations, establishment of new facilities, institutional advancement and the birthing of a new volunteer culture. 

The Birds Nest Stadium and Water Cube stadiums were two examples of Beijing’s dedication to creating an honorable image before the world. Both centers were specially designed for the Olympics with Chinese traditional values in mind. 

The National Stadium, aka the 'Bird’s Nest,' was the chief stage for football and track and field. The appearance of the stadium was fashioned to appear as a larger-than-life nest that nurses humans, with the tallest point being 68.5 meters (225 feet). These days, the stadium is still used for international and domestic sports competitions, as well as other recreational activities.  

The Bird's Nest. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The National Aquatics Center, otherwise known as the ‘Water Cube,’ was another iconic structure built for the 2008 games. Shaped like a slab of ice, the theme of the building revolved around Chinese conceptualizations of a round heaven and square Earth.

2008 Olympics
The Water Cube. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike the Bird’s Nests and Water Cube, not all venues are still in use.

READ MORE: 2008 Beijing Olympic Venues Then and Now

The Games attracted the largest global TV audience ever; 4.7 billion viewers – or 70% of the world’s population  tuned in, according to Nielsen. During the 2008 Olympics, China earned a total of 100 medals  51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze – represent China's largest ever medal tally.

READ MORE: People's Republic of China at the 1984 Olympics

Beijing Olympic Medals
The 2008 Beijing Olympics medals. Each was designed with a ring of jade. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Heroes made the headlines, too. At the Water Cube, American swimmer Michael Phelps cemented his Olympic legacy by picking up a whopping eight gold medals, setting a new record for individual gold medal haul in a single Olympic Games. 

Michael Phelps
Image via Bryan Allison/Flickr.

Over at the Bird's Nest, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt broke several records, winning the men's 100-meter dash with the ground-breaking time of 9.59 seconds, the 200-meter race in 19.30 seconds and the 4x100-meter relay in 37.10 seconds. Bolt set new world records in all three races.

All of these positive aspects of the 2008 games have left a lasting legacy for China in Olympics history. But the three-week sporting event was not without its controversies.

One of the more notable scandals took place on the evening of the opening ceremony, when reports emerged that Lin Miaoke, an adorable nine-year-old Chinese singer, had lip-synched her entire performance. The original audio for the ceremony had actually come from seven-year-old Yang Peiyi. 

After the scandal sparked international outrage, Beijing's Olympic organizing committee found itself scrambling for an explanation.

Chen Qigang, chief music director of the games, would later tell a local Beijing radio station how a top government official had wanted Lin’s voice to “change.” In support of the idea, Chen said: “We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance. The reason was for the national interest.” 

There was also another big controversy over the ages of the athletes on the Chinese women’s gymnastics team. Gymnasts must be at least 16 years of age, or turning 16 within the calendar year, to compete in senior-level events, and the rules of the games require there to be proof of age by documentation.

But before the 2008 games even took place, journalists around the globe began questioning the eligibility of Yang Yilin, He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan, listed as being younger than 16 on a Chinese sports registration form. 

Lu Shanzen, China’s Coach, defended her trainees, saying at the time: “It’s unfair that people keep saying the Chinese are too young to compete. If they think they can tell someone’s age just by looking at them, well, if you look at the foreign athletes, they have so much more muscles than the Chinese. They are so strong. Do you then say that they are doping?” 

Following an investigation by International Gymnastics Federation a month after the Olympics concluded, members of the Chinese team were exonerated. 

Remember the Fuwa? The 2008 Olympic mascots were spotted everywhere. Their names  Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni were a play on the phrase of 'Beijng Welcomes You.' Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics went down as one of the biggest and most successful of all time. Luckily, we may have a chance to experience something like this again when the Olympics return to Beijing in 2022, making the capital the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. 

READ MORE: Beijing Unveils Official 2022 Winter Olympics Emblems

[Cover via Wikimedia Commons]

For more This Day in History stories, click here.

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