Indian reactions to the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

August 10, 2008, [MD]

I recently left Varanasi for New Delhi, and I am staying in the crazy and dirty backpacker ghetto called Pahar Ganj, conveniently located behind the main train station. Luckily, my hotel has a TV (with some 80 channels), and thus I was able to catch the live broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I am usually not a huge olympics, or sports fan, but given my long connection to China, and how much I have been hearing about the olympics from my Chinese friends - ever since I was there first in 2001 - I was quite interested in how it would turn out.

In addition, watching it on Indian TV gave me an opportunity to listen to the Indian commentators and see how the olympics, and China, were perceived here. In fact, I kept switching back and forth between three different English language channels (all Indian) - one was CNN IBN, one was Time Now I think, and there was a third on, perhaps NDTV.


In the run up to the Olympics, much of the newspaper coverage has been focused on the fact that India’s contingent is quite small, and that India cannot be expected to win many medals. In fact, I think they have only won 16 golds in all the Olympics together. There was also a row about who would get to accompany the athletes, with some having their parents going with them, and others not even getting a space for their coach (reminded me a bit of the negotiations in Chak De).

One of those “can only happen in India” moments was when the weightlifter Monika Devi was expelled for testing positive on a dope test. Manipur is a province tucked away near Cambodia, with a people that looks more East-Asian than South-Asian, and they decided that this had all been some kind of conspiracy from “mainland India” to exclude Manipur from the Olympics. Subsequently a bandh - general strike - was declared for 24 hours in the entire province, effigies were burnt, demonstrations ensued in which at least five people were hurt, etc. In the end Monika was cleared to go, but this was too late to have her enter the competition (I suppose the fact that she was subsequently cleared only deepens the Manipuri belief in a grand conspiracy).

In general, Indians seem far too eager to block railway lines, call for general strikes, and burn effigies. Another example from the last few days was when Kannada groups blocked all the railway lines going to Tamil Nadu. The reason was that Kannada and Telugu were about to be awarded “classical language” status by the Indian government (which would mean more support for language preservation and development). Apparently the Kannada groups believed that Tamil Nadu (which posits itself as home of the original classical Dravidian language) was trying to block this appointment, and thus shut down traffic. But back to the Olympics…

Extremely positive

Generally, the commentators were extremely positive to the opening ceremony. Especially one of the commentators, I think on Time Now, was a talking machine. He seemed to be trying to break some kind of record, as he gushed out superlatives, the mother of all ceremonies, amazing, spectacular, cannot believe my own eyes… All the channels also spent a lot of energy on the Indian team when they entered, re-running for 20 minutes the one minute footage of the ragtag team entering, and Sonia Gandhi waving to them. The focus, however, was quite different. Our exuberant commentator was over himself in appreciation, talking about how excited the Indian’s looked, the patriotism that formerly beamed out of their eyes, and the smile on Sonia Gandhi’s lips that had not been seen for so long.

The other channel, I believe CNN IBN, was however horrified by the fact that while the men had been wearing nice traditional Indian garb, only one of the women wore a sari, while the others wore training jackets and pants. In addition, about half the Indian team had digital cameras and were busy filming the audience while walking out, prompting some comments that they looked like a bunch of tourists (in all fairness, most of the other delegations did the same thing).

This “dress disaster” prompted much discussion, and in the newspaper it was later revealed that the girls had come straight from practice and not had time to change (one wonders if they hadn’t been told about the Opening Ceremony). However, evil tongues suggest that the saris were not delivered in time, or that the athletes were unhappy about the color and quality of the fabric. We shall never know.

Could India do it?

One of the topics raised frequently by all the commentators, who were awed by the organization and infrastructure in Beijing, was “could India host the Olympics?”. Many frankly said no, stating that India couldn’t put on a tenth of this Opening Ceremony, and discussing the infrastructure in Delhi as extremely poor. However, the country will host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and this was seen as an important stepping stone. Apparently about 50 officials from India were in Beijing trying to learn from the organization of the games.


Thanks to..· ✈Katherina ➳·..for the two first pictures.*\ *

Stian Håklev August 10, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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