Beijing's greatest show on Earth set the bar for Olympic Opening Ceremony standards

By the time a man had walked on air around the top of the Olympic stadium and lit the torch in Beijing four years ago, the message already had been received loud and clear in London:

You're in big trouble.

The host of the 2012 Summer Olympics was handed the most daunting assignment in Opening Ceremony history: following what was literally the greatest show on Earth.

It is hard to imagine anything London does later this month comparing even remotely to the spectacle Beijing delivered the world in August 2008, when it took the tradition of Olympic one-upsmanship to a previously unattained level.

[Photos: Opening Ceremonies through the years]

Olympic Opening Ceremonies once were primarily a showcase for the athletes themselves, marching in to the applause of a packed stadium. That's still a vital part of the show, but for a few decades the kickoff of the Games has become more of a look-what-we-can-do theatrical undertaking serving as the host country's opportunity to dazzle the world with choreography, creativity, costumes and technology – the basic ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster production. Fittingly, the Opening Ceremony that really raised the bar was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

After boycotting Moscow in 1980, the United States was highly motivated to stage a big show upon its re-entry into the five-ring summer circus. So they put 84 pianists in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum playing "Rhapsody In Blue" and had a guy with a jet pack fly around the stadium. Boffo.

In the 1990s, lighting the Olympic flame became the centerpiece of the show. At Barcelona in 1992, archer Antonio Rebollo turned in one of the great clutch performances in Summer Games history by firing a flaming arrow into the caldron, perched at the top of the stadium, to set it afire.

[Related: Memorable Moments: Ali in Atlanta]

As the BBC put it, "It will be hard for any host to compete with Barcelona's unique way of lighting the Olympic flame at the 1992 opening ceremony."

Four years later, Atlanta more than compensated for its lack of flame-lighting trickery with star appeal. An otherwise uninspiring Opening Ceremony that featured a bunch of pickup trucks was made memorable at the end when swimming star Janet Evans handed the Olympic torch to a surprise guest – The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, who had a career coda by lighting the caldron while his body shook from the effects of Parkinson's.

It was a humanizing moment for Ali and a rallying one for a nation that for so long had been divided in its opinion on the boxing legend and onetime draft dodger.

But those ceremonies were all prelude to the show-stopping, show-starter in Beijing. When the Olympics came to China for the first time, the world's most populous nation was acutely ready for its long-anticipated showcase.

"China's proudest night," declared the China Daily.

The inner workings of China's proudest night were less a point of pride: participants in the Opening Ceremony were virtual indentured servants, rehearsing for 10 months while living in almost barbaric conditions. The director of the production, Zang Yimou, told the Telegraph of London in 2008 that neither England nor any other country could produce such a spectacle because labor unions would never allow the work force to endure such conditions.

But if it was ugly on the inside, it sure was pretty on the outside.

The overpowering ceremony was a display of more than just the ruthless regimentation and precision many expected; it was a showcase of Chinese art and beauty as well. In front of 91,000 awestruck fans in the Olympic stadium and millions worldwide, China's look-what-we-can-do moment exceeded all predecessors.

The production was rolled out on the grandest scale – 2,008 drummers filled the stadium floor and thundered out a hello to the world on illuminated drums. The uniformity was impressive but predictable – the smiles from the drummers was slightly less expected. It was determined during rehearsals that so many serious miens pounding on drums and shouting into the night sky was more intimidating than welcoming, so the cast was encouraged to express joy for the cameras and the fans.

There were salutes to philosopher Confucius and to the Chinese advancements in printing. And, of course, there were galaxies of fireworks from the nation that invented the use of explosives as entertainment.

As China's story was told throughout a more than four-hour production, the underlying drama mounted: How would they light the torch? And with whom?

The who turned out to be gymnast Li Ning, who won six medals in the 1984 Olympics. The how was mind-boggling.

Li was suspended by cables at the top of the stadium and ran a dramatic, slow-motion lap in mid-air. Rehearsals were top-secret affairs, so the surprise and delight was almost percussive when Li began his lap to the roars that rose from below.

Capping a production unlike any other, China contributed levitation to the Olympic lexicon.

And now London is left with the most thankless task in Opening Ceremony history.

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