The 2008 Summer Olympic Games kicked off on Aug. 8, 2008, with a spectacular opening ceremony that many observers called unparalleled. Prior to the games, however, China was dogged by its abysmal human-rights record, a deadly crackdown on Buddhist monks, nearly intolerable air quality, attempts to censor some journalists reporting on the Games, and continued ties to the Sudanese government. These incidents combined to set low expectations for peaceful Games.
By most accounts, however, China exceeded expectations in running the Games, proving the country as a powerhouse on many levels. With each event being tightly choreographed, China left little room for spontaneity or chance. The price tag of the Games exceeded $2.2 billion, and China spent about $40 billion preparing for the Games, cementing its economic dominance. Air quality didn't seem to be an issue with marathoners or cyclers.
China won a record 51 gold medals, and a total of 100 medals. The U.S. followed with 36 golds and a total of 110 medals, and Russia claimed 23 golds and 72 total medals. Some 10,500 athletes representing 204 countries competed in 302 events spread out over 28 sports.
American swimmer Michael Phelps undoubtedly emerged as the star of the Games, living up to the pre-Games hype. He won eight gold medals, breaking the record set by Mark Spitz in the 1972 Summer Games. He also set a record for the most golds in a single Olympics. Phelps participated in eight events and set seven world records. The dynamic duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, the U.S. women's beach volleyball team, won its second consecutive gold medal and 108th-straight match. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt earned the nickname "Lightning Bolt," breaking world records in each of his three events: the 100 m, 200 m, and the 400 m relay.
On the final day of the 2008 Summer Games, the U.S. men's basketball team, once called the "Dream Team" before falling in the 2004 Olympics, prevailed over Spain, 118 to 107, to take the gold medal and earning them the new nickname the "Redeem Team."
The Games were not without controversy, however. The government was criticized for stifling protests and dissent, going so far as to sentence two women in their 70s to labor camp to prevent them from holding a demonstration. The government selected three Beijing parks as protest sites, but turned down every applicant who sought permission to stage a demonstration. In addition, on the opening day of the Games, a Chinese man stabbed and killed Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of Hugh McCutcheon, the head indoor men's volleyball coach.
It's fair to say that the 2008 Summer Games ended as a public relations success for China. The world witnessed stunning displays of athleticism, fortitude, and pageantry with few glitches or scandals to mar the grandeur. It came at great financial cost to China, but the world's perception of China may prove to be invaluable for the world's most populous country.