The Olympic Games motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” means “swifter, higher, stronger”—and the 2008 edition was also bigger, in every way.
For 18 magical days in August, China threw its arms open to the world and put on an unforgettably lavish sporting and cultural extravaganza.
- Michael Phelps
- Leryn Franco
- Serena Williams
- Kobe Bryant
- Shawn Johnson
- Jennie Finch
- Misty May Treanor
- Alicia Sacramone
- Nastia Liukin
Iconic venues such as the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube were marvels of modern architecture and, intertwined with Beijing’s ancient sites, provided a fascinating backdrop for the most expensive Games ever staged.
A worldwide audience couldn’t get enough of it, hungrily hunting down every detail on the characters playing out sport’s most marvelously unscripted drama. The Olympics was a nightly epic soap opera, in which Michael Phelps played the ideal leading man. The American swimmer’s glorious quest for an unprecedented eight gold medals was compulsive viewing—and compulsive clicking. Fans eagerly sought to know about the Baltimore native’s arm span, eating regimen, his family, and whether or not he was romantically involved.
Paraguayan javelin thrower Leryn Franco and Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho broke the American monopoly in Olympian searches. Franco could only manage 51st place in her discipline, but the Miss Paraguay runner-up proved all that clicks is not gold, becoming a hotter search item than bikini-clad champions of the beach (volleyball gold-medalists Kerri Walsh and Misty-May Treanor) or a supersonic Lightning Bolt (a.k.a. triple gold-medalist and world record-breaker Usain).
The host nation was not content with simply throwing the party—China wanted to keep most of the gleaming prizes for itself. Its emergence as a dominant force in Olympic sports, with a whopping 51 golds, was easy to predict. The blanket success though, did not allow for the emergence of a single iconic figure like a Phelps, especially after hometown hero Liu Xiang was injured in the heats of the 110m hurdles. The native successes that did emerge included gymnast He Kexin, whose official age of 16 came under heavy scrutiny, and diver Guo Jing Jing, whose bounty tied her with Fu Ming and Greg Louganis for the most diving gold.
The possible under-age athletes proved to be just one of several controversies that cast a shadow over the Games. Before 08-08-08, protesters criticized China’s involvement in Darfur and Tibet. Environmental issues in the country’s own backyard were not cured by stopping the factories from belching out fumes for a few short weeks. Areas set aside for dissension remained empty because of a labored application process. Bureaucratic paranoia pulled a seven-year-old singer Yang Peiyi from the Opening Ceremony, replacing her with a “prettier” girl who lip-synced to Yang’s song.
Yet rightly or wrongly, Olympics are rarely remembered by matters thus. Few could dispute that Beijing put together a spectacular carnival of sport: Bookended by Zhang Yimou’s cinematic displays, the event was a titanic effort of organization, efficiency, and collective spirit. The XXIX Olympiad was China’s return to the global stage and the debut of its 6 billion residents who make up 20% of the world’s population.
Equally importantly, the Games will be remembered for the feats performed by the planet’s finest physical specimens. From Phelps to tiny tumblers Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin to basketball’s Redeem Team and countless others—the modern greats of world sport added a catalogue of memories to Olympic history’s storied chronicles.