It was quite frankly the greatest sporting experience of my life. To be in the Olympic stadium on Saturday night around 10.30pm Beijing time and to witness the fastest man on Earth.
Usain Bolt of Jamaica reacts as he wins the men's 100-metre final with a world record in athletics competitions. The Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and Northern Ireland's Wendy Houvenaghel, foreground, shows the silver medal of the Track Cycling Women's Individual Pursuit event, as her teammate Rebecca Romero shows her gold medal at the Olympics in Beijing
What a day it had been. My colleagues in the Chinese capital nicknamed it “super Saturday”. First, a two-hour trip north-east of Beijing to the Great Wall of China. Then, on a beautiful afternoon on the Shunyi park lake, with 40,000 spectators lining the banks, to watch the rowing finals and join in the emotion of the medal ceremonies and the singing of the anthems as the flags were raised.
As darkness fell, to take my seat, number 13, sector G and tier two in the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium and be there when Usain Bolt of Jamaica, ran the fastest 100 metres in history.
I had thought that nothing could surpass the experience of Beijing itself, its breath-taking modernity and its size. Or, even more so, taking the chairlift 1,000 metres high to the Great Wall, and to stand on a little stretch of this 4,000 mile long man-made wonder of the world.
But in 9.69 electrifying seconds, one man’s supreme performance captivated all of us who were privileged to be there in the Olympic stadium on a balmy Beijing evening.
The Bird’s Nest stadium is a staggering sight from outside as TV viewers know by now but to sit inside amongst the 91,000 spectators is an unbelievable experience. This is not purely sport. It has become theatre on a gigantic scale with the whole evening choreographed by the Chinese.
They have created a gladiatorial atmosphere with rousing music accompanying the athletes’ performances, stirring drumbeats as the stars line-up and the athletes’ announced to the crowd as if they were appearing in a stage show.
The wind speed in the stadium was zero, even though when the medal ceremonies are taking place there appeared to be a gale blowing around the ascending flags.
The Chinese have thought of everything even down to concealing fans in the flagpoles so that the gold, silver and bronze medallists, despite the stillness of the stadium, look up at billowing emblems of their countries.
We all knew we had witnessed something uniquely special and as Usain Bolt ran around the track towards us and stopped directly below to acknowledge the crowd, the big screen proved it. His time flashed up, then a crescendo of cheering engulfed us all as he was hailed.
No epic film could have equalled this real-life moment and the Chinese organisers were ready for it, even down to filling the stadium with appropriate West Indian music as Bolt took his bow from the crowd.
The big screens lit up with special animation effects over-printed with words — “fantastic” “cheers”, “congratulations” at one end in English, at the other in Mandarin. It was the moment these Olympics hit a new peak if that was possible after the awesome opening ceremony.
At every level of these games, the passion and pride of success comes through. In Northern Ireland’s case, it rested yesterday on the shoulders of Wendy Houvenaghel. Actually being here at an Olympics makes one appreciate the effort and commitment that competitors like Wendy have made to reach this pinnacle in sport.
Don’t tell me patriotism is dead in the world. Not after witnessing a dozen medal ceremonies in the past couple of days. I can bear testimony to the pride and the passion in these moments that still exists for countries, large and small.
On a broader issue of China’s image, the experience in Beijing has raised questions in my mind and I am sure that of many of the other 500,000 visitors, about our television news from abroad.
For example, you may have seen the images of Tibetan protesters unveiling posters but the amount of time devoted to this on your news far outweighs its importance here.
Beijing is a more open city than simplistic headlines would lead you to believe. The people are as content, if not more so, than people back home. The city has an air of vibrancy and has embraced western influences to a surprising degree.
We have had our eyes opened in this city to a point where I would even question: is the administration as oppressive and dictatorial as the television images convey?
Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable for these Games to have taken place here. The world has moved on and sport is helping. I thought that last night as I stood during a medal ceremony. The Stars Spangled Banner of the United States boomed out around us in the middle of what was once a citadel of communism.
“One world, one dream” is the slogan that is everywhere here. We may still have a long way to go but the dream is a little closer.
I think London in 2012 will be hard-pressed to live up to the welcome which this supposedly oppressive one-party communist state has afforded us all.