China's Olympic pride and the lessons learned
China waited a long time to realise its dream of hosting an Olympic Games. Now that the curtain has come down on 17 days of spectacular action, the nation can take pride in what it has achieved. The Games, for so long a focus for doubts and controversy, will go down as one of the best.
From the visually stunning opening ceremony to last night's colourful closing celebration, the Games lived up to and, in many respects, exceeded expectations. They will, rightly, be remembered most of all for sporting achievements, from the record-breaking feats of Michael Phelps in the pool and the supreme sprinting ability of Usain Bolt on the track to the all-conquering Chinese gold medallists. This is what the Olympics are all about.
But the successful staging of the event also marks the beginning of a new chapter in the country's history. Chinese people will look to the future with greater confidence, knowing that the nation has taken its place among the world's leading players.
Doubts expressed in the lead-up to the Games proved exaggerated or unfounded. There was no boycott by world leaders. Nor were there terrorist attacks or sporting events disrupted by protesters. We were even treated to blue skies in Beijing, allowing the city to provide a beautiful backdrop to some of the signature events such as yesterday's men's marathon. Seven years of painstaking preparations paid off, providing a perfect platform upon which the athletes could perform. The Games were well organised, the facilities superb, and credit must be given to those who worked so hard.
That is not to say that all was perfect. The Games shone a spotlight on China's achievements, but also on its weaknesses, highlighting the need for improvements. There were times when the government's obsession with control, combined with a determination to ensure that there would not be the slightest flaw, backfired in a way that served to reinforce stereotypical views of the nation. The replacement of the little girl who sang a patriotic song so beautifully at the opening ceremony by another girl deemed more attractive - who lip-synched - was misjudged. It took a little of the gloss off that otherwise sparkling occasion. More serious was the refusal by officials to tolerate protests. Protest zones were set up, but every application was rejected. The arrest and sentencing of two elderly petitioners who repeatedly asked for permission to protest made a mockery of promises that protests would be tolerated.
The government still has an outdated concept of social harmony, in which everyone is expected to follow the official line. Moving forward, China needs a more dynamic form of harmony where different views are tolerated and issues freely debated. This would help social stability by providing people with an outlet for their grievances so that disputes can be more easily resolved.
One of the biggest successes of the Games, for China, was the gold medal haul secured by the country's athletes. A tight battle with the US for leadership of the medal table was expected. But China raced into an unassailable lead, taking 51 golds, the most by any nation for 20 years. It is a landmark for sport in China.
Credit must go to the mainland's sports system which, while often criticised for its rigorous approach, has certainly proved it can get results. China dominated events in which it is traditionally strong. A staggering nine gymnastics gold medals were won; there were eight in weightlifting, seven for diving, five for shooting, four for table tennis and three in badminton and judo. Success was also found in the swimming pool, which bodes well for the future.
There were also new achievements. China entered athletes for every event. Gold medals were won for the first time in rowing, archery, trampoline, sailing and boxing. The country is building a formidable sporting machine and it will take some beating in the next Games, in London, in 2012. But there were also disappointments, notably for hurdler Liu Xiang, who carried the hopes of the nation for a rare track gold but limped disconsolately away from the 110 metres hurdles. He has vowed to make a comeback, and no doubt he will. His misfortune is a reminder that sport is unpredictable. Indeed, that is why it has so much appeal.
The Games highlight that sport also transcends borders. A coach born in China trained American gymnast Shawn Johnson, who won gold in the women's balance beam event. A French coach guided Chinese fencer Zhong Man to his country's first male individual gold medal at the sport - over a Frenchman.
Much attention has been paid to medals, but the Olympics are about more than success - they are also about endeavour and courage. The athletes have all contributed to an inspiring festival which remains an enduring example of the human spirit.
China's Olympic dream has not ended with the closing ceremony. Hosting the Games will have a lasting effect. The pride instilled in Chinese has given them newfound confidence. In this sense, the Games have already changed the nation. Authorities should use the opportunity to encourage sport for sport's sake. There is more to sport than winning medals and titles. It is about teamwork, fitness, health and enjoyment. For the sake of the health of the nation, sport has to move from training camps for elite athletes to being encouraged for all Chinese.
The legacy of the Beijing Olympics, however, best lies in the lessons that the country has learned. The rest of the world knows China a little better and will, on the whole, be left with a good impression. The nation will, as a result, emerge from Beijing 2008 more sure of itself and better prepared for the challenges ahead.