Beijing Olympics end, and focus turns to London 2012

[25 August 2008]

By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

BEIJING—The most expensive and lavish Olympic Games in history came to a close Sunday as Beijing officially passed the Olympic flame to London, and the countdown started for 2012 games that the British say will be frugal but fun.

To the deafening roar of fireworks, Beijing marked the end of Summer Games that brought it a record bounty of 51 gold medals and seized global sports supremacy from the United States.

The two-hour closing ceremony held a dash of whimsy—including scores of performers on pogo stilts—and more technical wizardry than the precision mass movements of singers and dancers of the Aug. 8 opening of the Games, designed to project China’s strength.

Some 7,000 performers took part in the closing ceremony, including Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, Chinese chanteuse Song Zuying and British singer Leona Lewis.

Liu Qi, head of the organizing committee of the Beijing Games, extolled the athletes who broke numerous records during the 16-day games.

“They have given their very best in a fair play environment and achieved amazing results by breaking 38 world records and 85 Olympic records,” Liu said.

A little more than an hour into the ceremony, Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong handed the Olympic flag to International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge, who passed it on to Boris Johnson, London’s beaming mop-haired mayor.

Then it was London’s turn.

As British Prime Minister Gordon Brown watched from the stadium gallery, British designers took over a portion of the evening ceremony, and brought with them a legendary figure in rock-music history, a sporting icon and some wry British humor.

A red double-decker London bus drove into the Bird’s Nest Stadium, peeling open like a blossoming flower to reveal a stage. On it was Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist, playing the classic “Whole Lotta Love.” Moments later, David Beckham, the soccer icon, arrived to kick a soccer ball into a crowd of athletes. Beckham scored a huge ovation.

Tens of thousands of Britons watched the ceremony in live broadcasts on 30 giant screens around the British Isles, including in London’s Trafalgar Square.

While Beijing spent more than $40 billion to build knock-‘em-dead arenas, new subway lines and environmental programs to clear smog, London has budgeted a more modest $19 billion. The British capital, Europe’s largest city with 8.5 million residents, has cast the 2012 Games as a way to revive poor parts of east London, leaving a long-term legacy to the city.

London officials have also suggested they can teach Beijing how to hold a party. Security measures left Beijing bereft of common areas for people to gather and celebrate, and few people were allowed onto the massive Olympic Green for the first week.

The Beijing games brought hundreds of thousands of volunteers into the streets to assist tourists but were characterized by extraordinary levels of police control and marred by scattered acts of repression, including more than a dozen arrests, among them two elderly Chinese women who sought permits to hold a legal protest.

Beijing denied permits to all disgruntled citizens who wanted to protest in three designated parks it set up in a sop to global criticism of its policies on human rights. Liu, refuting foreign criticism that Beijing lied to win the games, claimed in his short speech that “the Chinese people ... have honored their commitments they solemnly made” in obtaining the Olympics.

Rogge, the IOC chief, acknowledged earlier Sunday at a news conference that London games will have a different flavor than the precise, clockwork Beijing games.

Rogge lauded London as “a very cosmopolitan city” in a nation that invented modern sport and ushered in values of fair play. He also noted that Britain reaped a record medal haul (19 gold medals, No. 4 in the table), giving it momentum.

“We always want a very powerful and successful host team to foster the enthusiasm in the entire population, and you have achieved that four years beforehand,” Rogge said.

While London was the evening’s debutante, of sorts, a fast-and-furious race still unfolded behind the scenes in Beijing hotel corridors and restaurants as delegates from Chicago and three other cities lobbied 115 IOC members for the right to host the 2016 Summer Games.

Madrid, with its European panache, is seen as a frontrunner, along with gritty Chicago, a diehard sports city with a remarkable lakefront. Sassy Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and sophisticated Tokyo are also competing for the rights as host.

“The city of Chicago is wildly passionate about hosting the Games. The people are very much into it,” said Patrick G. Ryan, the insurance tycoon who Mayor Richard Daley tapped as his city’s bid chief. “Our Olympic heart will be right in center city in the parkland.”

Rio’s chances to host the 2016 Games seemed to rise during the Beijing Games, with soccer legend Pele arguing that Rio’s bid is on behalf of all South America, which has never been awarded the Olympics.

“We’ve proved that we have the merit,” said Carlos Arthur Nuzman, Rio’s bid chief.

The decision on the 2016 Games will be made in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Oct. 2, 2009. Some leaders of state representing the competing cities have already said they will travel to Copenhagen.

Ryan, the Chicago bid chief, said he expected that whoever wins the U.S. presidency in November, Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, barring any scheduling conflicts, would travel to Denmark to back Chicago’s bid.

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