The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was truly spectacular—and will likely never be topped.
When the International Olympic Committee selects a location for the Games, it specifically bestows the honor not to a nation, but to a city. Though that hasn’t stopped host countries from using the opening ceremony for political purposes. An infamous example was the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, which many saw as a showcase for the might of Hitler’s Third Reich.
China, it has been widely suggested, used the 2008 games as a lavish “coming out”—a global platform to show the emergence of a 21st-century Middle Kingdom. To that end, local Olympic officials spared no effort or expense in putting on a show for the ages. Filmmaker Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) produced the ceremony—a statement in itself, as Zhang’s earlier work had been banned in China. Organizers even snared Steven Spielberg as an artistic adviser; he soon resigned in protest of China’s relationship with Sudan.
Featuring a cast of 15,000 performers, the ceremony was an eye-popping mix of artistry and technology—and earned enthusiastic reviews. The budget: more than $100 million. It was (and still is) an absolutely staggering amount of money to stage a four-hour TV show—and the kind of expense that most governments have now found very difficult to justify.
Danny Boyle, the film director who produced the quirky and charming opening ceremony for the London games (with less than half Zhang’s budget) knew he had to dampen expectations for his production—he told a newspaper: “You can’t get bigger than Beijing.” It’s a statement that’s likely to remain true for a long time.