Opening Ceremony performers faced harsh conditions
BEIJING -- Martial arts student Cheng Jianghua only saw the army barracks he stayed in and the stadium where he performed at the spectacular Olympics Opening Ceremony. But his sacrifices were minor -- other performers were injured, fainted from heatstroke or forced to wear adult diapers so the show could go on.
Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the ceremony's director, insisted in an interview with local media that suffering and sacrifice were required to pull off the Aug. 8 opening, which involved wrangling nearly 15,000 cast and crew. Only North Korea could have done it better, he said.
But some news reports have raised questions about the lengths to which Beijing went in trying to create a perfect start to the Summer Games.
Chinese officials were accused of fakery for using computer-generated images to enhance the show's fireworks display for TV viewers.
Organizers also have been criticized about their decision to have a 9-year-old girl lip-synch "Ode to the Motherland" because the real singer was deemed not cute enough.
Performers have complained that they sustained injuries from slipping during rain-drenched rehearsals or fainting from heatstroke amid hours of training under the relentless summer sun.
Cheng and 2,200 other carefully chosen pugilist prodigies spent an average of 16 hours a day, every day, rehearsing a synchronized tai-chi routine involving high kicks, sweeping lunges and swift punches. They lived for three months in trying conditions at a restricted army camp on the outskirts of Beijing.
"We never went out during the time we were training," Cheng, 20, told the AP in a phone interview. "Our school is quite strict. When we stay in school we can't go out on our own, let alone when we're at a military camp."
In the most extreme case, Beijing organizers revealed last week that Liu Yan, a 26-year-old dancer, was seriously injured during a July rehearsal. Shanghai media reported that she fell from a 10-foot stage and may be permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
Zhang, the ceremony's director, visited Liu in the hospital and has told Chinese media that he deeply regrets what happened to her -- but he has also defended the training schedule his performers endured.
He told the popular Guangzhou weekly newspaper Southern Weekend that only communist North Korea could have done a better job getting thousands of performers to move in perfect unison.
"North Korea is No. 1 in the world when it comes to uniformity. They are uniform beyond belief! These kind of traditional synchronized movements result in a sense of beauty. We Chinese are able to achieve this as well. Through hard training and strict discipline," he said. Pyongyang's annual mass games feature 100,000 people moving in lockstep.
Performers in the West by contrast need frequent breaks and cannot withstand criticism, Zhang said, citing his experience working on an opera performance abroad. Though he didn't mention specific productions, Zhang directed Tan Dun's "The First Emperor," starring Placido Domingo, at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 2006.
"In one week, we could only work four and a half days, we had to have coffee breaks twice a day, couldn't go into overtime and just a little discomfort was not allowed because of human rights," he said of the unidentified opera production.
"You could not criticize them either. They all belong to some organizations ... they have all kind of institutions, unions. We do not have that. We can work very hard, can withstand lots of bitterness. We can achieve in one week what they can achieve in two months."
In the Olympic ceremony segment showcasing the Chinese invention of movable type, the nearly 900 performers who crouched under 40-pound boxes donned adult diapers to allow them to stay inside for at least six hours, Beijing organizers said.
Some students of the Shaolin Tagou Traditional Chinese Martial Arts School in Henan province who began training for the event last May were injured in falls on the LED screen that forms the floor on which they performed and was made slippery by rain, said Liu Haike, one of the school's lead instructors.
"At one point, the children had to run in four different directions. ... When one fell, others quickly followed," Liu said, adding the injuries were minor.
While in Beijing, the constant exposure to the dizzyingly hot summer resulted in heatstroke for some students, particularly during one rain-drenched rehearsal that stretched on for two days and two nights.
The students were kept on their feet for most of the 51-hour rehearsal with little food and rest and no shelter from the night's downpour, as the show's directors attempted to coordinate the 2,008-member performance with multimedia effects, students and their head coach told the AP.
"We had only two meals for the entire time. There was almost no time to sleep, even less time for toilet breaks," Cheng said. "But we didn't feel so angry because the director was also there with us the whole time."
Despite the sacrifices, the student performers were grateful for the opportunity to participate in the historic event and view it as an honor.
"All the tears, the sweat, and sometimes even blood that we shed, I now think it was quite worth it," said Ren Yang, 17, also of the Tagou school. "When we performed that night, all that I could feel in my heart was joy. Pure joy."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
MORE OLYMPICS HEADLINES
- Durant, USA pull away from Spain to win gold
- Clippers' Paul has successful surgery on thumb
- Schmitt back to school after Olympic stardom
- Olympian Raisman, Poland Spring sign deal