21 February, 2021
Usain Bolt in action-Michael Phelps – Eight Swimming Olympic Golds
Usain Bolt in action-Michael Phelps – Eight Swimming Olympic Golds

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad was the most expansive ever, with 16 days of competition from August 8 to 24. China embraced the ideals of the Olympics with its official motto, “One World, One Dream” and called upon the whole world to join in the Olympic spirit to build a better future for humanity. The mascots of Beijing 2008 were five Fuwa, each of which represented both a colour of the Olympic rings and a symbol of Chinese culture.

The Games auspiciously began at 8:08 p. m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 in Beijing, capital of the world’s most populous country. China widely promoted a green and high-tech Summer Olympics in Beijing 2008 and was determined to show the world, through an Olympics lens, that it had joined the ranks of the world’s most modern and influential countries. According to Nielsen Media Research, 4.7 billion viewers worldwide tuned into some of the television coverage.

It was the Summer Olympic Games of records and superlatives. There were many memorable champions but it was Michael Phelps of the United States’ and Usain Bolt of Jamaica who stole the headlines. The metronomic record-breaking machine Michael Phelps bettered Mark Spitz’s achievement at the Munich 1972 by claiming eight gold medals and the incredible showman and scene-stealer Usain Bolt broke both 100m and 200m world records and claimed a third gold and record with the Jamaican 4x100m relay team.

The organization was excellent and the venues breathtaking. The National Stadium, nick-named the “Bird’s Nest”, and the National Swimming Centre, known as the “Water Cube”, were both stunning symbols of the new Beijing. In cycling, the road race followed the Great Wall and passed in front of the “Forbidden City” - two symbols of the thousand year old history of the city. This was the first time China hosted the Summer Olympic Games, and the third time the Games had been held in East Asia, following Tokyo 1964 and Seoul 1988.

The design of the 2008 Olympic Torch was based on traditional scrolls and used a traditional Chinese design known as the “Propitious Clouds.” The torch was designed to remain lit in 65 km/h winds, and in rain of up to 50 mm per hour. The torch relay, with the theme “Journey of Harmony,” lasted 130 days and carried 137,000 km - the longest distance of any Olympic torch relay since the tradition began in Berlin 1936. The flame was carried to the top of Mount Everest on a 108 km long highway scaling the Tibetan side of the mountain, built especially for the relay.

Opening and Closing Ceremonies

The Opening Ceremony declared open by the President Hu Jintao on August 8, 2008 was unforgettable. It was lauded by spectators and social media as spectacular, spellbinding and by many accounts, “the greatest ever in the history of Olympics.” The official logo was titled, “Dancing Beijing.” The theme song, “You and Me,” was performed by Chinese singer Liu Huan and British singer Sarah Brightman. The ceremony was co-directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Chinese choreographer Zhang Jigang and featured a cast of over 15,000 performers. The ceremony lasted over four hours.

A rich assembly of ancient Chinese art and culture dominated the ceremony. It opened with the beating of Fou drums for the countdown. Subsequently, a giant scroll was unveiled and became the show’s centerpiece. The former Chinese gymnast Li Ning ignited the cauldron, after being suspended into the air by wires and completing a lap of the National Stadium at roof height. Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the XXIX Olympiad, called the ceremony “a grand, unprecedented success.”

The Closing Ceremony on August 24, 2008 concluded the Beijing Games. It included handover of the Games from Beijing to London with Guo Jinlong, the Mayor of Beijing handing over the Olympic flag to the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, followed by a spectacular performance by London Organizing Committee that featured Footballer David Beckham.

Sports and Medals

A total of 10,942 athletes - 4,637 women and 6,305 men, competed for medals in 302 events in 28 sports under 41 disciplines. Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Mauritius and Togo all experienced podium finishes for the first time. However, Mongolia and Panama managed to go one better with their athletes bringing home their country’s first Olympic gold medals. Four members of the water polo team from Serbia won the first medal for their country under its new name.

Nine new events were held, including two from the new cycling discipline of BMX and 3,000m steeplechase for women. Open water swimming events for men and women, over the distance of 10 km, were added to swimming. Team events in table tennis replaced the doubles events. Three countries participated in the Olympic Games for their first time: the Marshall Islands, Montenegro and Tuvalu. An unprecedented 87 countries won at least one medal during the Games.

Athletes from China won the highest number of gold medals of any nation at these Games, with 48, thus making China the seventh nation to rank top in the medal table in the history of the modern Olympics, along with the United States (15 times), the Soviet Union (6 times), France (1900), Great Britain (1908), Germany (1936), and the Unified Team (1992). The United States placed second in the gold medal tally, but won the highest of 112 overall. The third place in the gold medal tally was achieved by Russia.

Phelps Rewrites Olympic Records

The 23-year Baltimore already had six gold medals under his belt after a dramatic Olympic debut in Athens 2004, and his sights were set on the record of most gold medals in a single Olympics. Phelps undoubtedly had the ability to win the individual events but so much can go wrong in the relays, their unpredictability being their main appeal and he would ultimately depend on his team-mates for three of his gold medals.

Phelps started with his first gold in 400m individual medley, when he shaved a second off his own world record. Golds and world records followed in 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley while he and his team mates clinched gold with some ease in 4x200m freestyle relay and 100m medley relay. As he took gold in 200m freestyle he joined athletes Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi, gymnast Larisa Latynina and Spitz on the record of nine Olympic golds.

He passed them with his win in 200m butterfly. It was not all plain sailing though. In two events Phelps’ hopes of eight golds looked dead and buried - 4x100m freestyle relay and 100m butterfly. Phelps finished 2008 with eight gold medals to his name from Beijing, 14 overall - five more than any other Olympian in the history of the Games.

Usain Bolt Takes Sprint Double

When Usain Bolt flew in to Beijing, there was just a handful of camera crews waiting to receive him. By the time the Jamaican sprinter left Beijing, pretty much every camera in the city was turned on him. At the start of 2008, the talk was of a 100m showdown in Beijing between Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay. In September 2007 Powell had claimed the outright world record with a blistering run of 9.74secs in Italy. He and Gay were developing one of the classic sprint rivalries that make the event the most compelling of them all.

Bolt had long been perceived as a 200m specialist. But a little over two months before Beijing, Bolt felt the time was right for a concerted crack in the 100m and he proceeded to take two hundredths of a second off Powell’s best mark. At Olympics, it was Bolt who was catching the eye and his 9.85secs in the semis, run in a relaxed fashion, marked him out as the favourite. The world was beginning to see what a showman Bolt was. As the cameras panned along the row of finalists, Bolt pointed to his ‘serious’ mouth to show how much he was focusing on the task.

As the eight athletes settled on the blocks, there was tense hush in the stadium, with the roar of the gas fuelling the Olympic flame just about the only sound audible to those in the stadium.

The following 9.69secs were to enter into Olympic folklore. After establishing his smooth running stride at the halfway mark, Bolt flew clear of his rivals and slapped his chest in celebration at around the 80m marker, so complete was his dominance. It turned out, as replays indicated, that he even ran the race with one of his shoelaces undone. A star was born, and so was his trademark victory pose. The Games would hear a lot more from this 21-year from Kingston.

Key Achievers in a Nutshell

August 9: The first gold medal of Beijing 2008 was won by Czech markswoman Katerina Emmons in the women’s 10m air rifle event.

August 10: American swimmer Michael Phelps won his first gold in the 400m individual medley. Guo Jingjing, two-time gold medal winner at the Athens 2004, took home the third gold as a member of the victorious Chinese team in the 3m synchronized springboard diving event.

August 11: India’s Abhinav Bindra won the first gold in his country’s history by taking the men’s 10m air rifle event. Phelps continued his historic quest for eight gold medals winning 4x100m freestyle relay.

August 12: Togo’s Benjamin Boukpeti won his country’s first medal – a bronze in the men’s single kayak slalom event. China took home the gold in the men’s team gymnastics event. American swimmer Natalie Coughlin repeated as gold medalist in the women’s 100m backstroke event. The first two wrestling gold medals of the Beijing Games were awarded to Russia’s Nazyr Mankiev and Islam-Beka Albiev for winning the Greco-Roman 55-kg and 60-kg weight classes, respectively.

August 13: American swimmer Michael Phelps won his 10th and 11th career Olympic gold medals - his fourth and fifth of the 2008 Games - to break the previous record of nine gold medals. China’s women’s gymnastics team won the country’s first gold in the artistic team event. The cycling individual time trial gold were won by Fabian Cancellara of Italy and Kristin Armstrong of the United States. Chinese weightlifter Liu Chunhong defended her Athens 2004 gold by winning the women’s 69-kg division of the weightlifting event. Liu broke world records in all three weightlifting categories - the snatch, the clean and jerk, and total weight.

August 14: Tuvshinbayar Naidan of Mongolia won the first gold for his country by taking the men’s 100-kg judo event. Yang Wei of China won the men’s individual all-around gymnastics gold. Japanese swimmer Kitajima Kosuke won the men’s 200-m breaststroke gold. The Ukrainian women’s sabre team upset the top-seeded U.S. team and host China en route to winning the gold.

August 15: Michael Phelps won his sixth Olympic event as he captured the gold in the 200m individual medley. American gymnast Nastia Liukin won the gold in the women’s individual all-around competition. Brothers Pavol Hochschorner and Peter Hochschorner of Slovakia won their third consecutive Olympic gold in the men’s double canoeing slalom event. The two had previously won the event at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.

August 16: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt broke his own world record in the men’s 100m sprint final clocking 9.69 sec to earn his first Olympic gold. Michael Phelps of the United States won his seventh gold of the Beijing in the 100m butterfly event to tie Mark Spitz’s Olympic record.

August 17: Michael Phelps broke the 36-year-old record of gold medals won in a single Olympic Games by winning his eighth gold of the Beijing Games as a member of the 4x100m medley relay team. Jamaica continued its domination of the sprints as all three medalists in the women’s 100m sprint final led by gold medal winner Shelly-Ann Fraser hailed from that country. China won the women’s team table tennis event to break the country’s record for gold medals in one Olympic Games with 33. Rafael Nadal of Spain won the gold in the men’s tennis singles event, becoming the first player with a top-five ranking to do so. Russia’s Elena Dementieva captured the gold in the women’s tennis singles.

August 18: Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva broke her own women’s pole vault world record by clearing 5.05 m and took her second consecutive Olympic gold in the event. American Stephanie Brown Trafton captured the gold in the women’s discus throw. Emma Snowsill of Australia won the gold in the women’s triathlon.

August 19: Cyclist Chris Hoy of Great Britain won the men’s sprint, his third gold medal of the Beijing Games after wins in the men’s keirin and team sprint events. Hoy is the first Briton in 100 years to take home three gold medals in one Olympic Games. Russia’s Mavlet Batirov won the men’s 60-kg freestyle wrestling gold. Li Xiaopeng of China won the men’s parallel bars gymnastics event.

August 20: Usain Bolt of Jamaica won his second sprint gold medal of the Beijing Games by taking the 200m sprint in 19.30 sec, breaking Michael Johnson’s 12-year world record in the process. Bouvaisa Saitiev of Russia won his record-tying third career wrestling gold medal by taking the men’s 55-kg freestyle event. Russia’s Larisa Ilchenko won the gold in the women’s 10-km marathon swim. South Africa’s Natalie du Toit, the first female amputee to compete in an Olympics event, finished 16th. Rohullah Nikpai gave Afghanistan its first ever medal when he won the Taekwondo men’s under 58kg bronze medal.

August 21: The Japanese softball team upset the favoured U.S. team to take the softball final. It was the United States’ first Olympic softball loss in eight years. The American women’s soccer team scored a goal in extra time to win the gold medal match over Brazil, 1- 0. Americans Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh won the women’s beach volleyball gold medal, duplicating their victory at the 2004 Athens Games. Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown won the women’s 200-metre sprint, giving her country a sweep of the men’s and women’s sprint events at the Beijing Games. Danielle de Bruijn scored seven goals - including the game winner, with 26 seconds left in the Netherlands’ upset victory over the top-seeded U.S. team in the women’s water polo final.

August 22: American Bryan Clay won the men’s decathlon gold four years after finishing with the silver at Athens 2004. France’s Anne-Caroline Chausson and Latvia’s Maris Strombergs won the women’s and men’s inaugural Olympic BMX cycling gold medals. Philip Dalhausser and Todd Rogers of the United States took the men’s beach volleyball gold, making the United States the first country to sweep both Olympic beach volleyball gold medals since the discipline debuted in 1996. The women’s and men’s 4x100m sprint relays were won by the Russian and Jamaican teams, respectively.

August 23: American runners swept both the men’s and women’s 4x400m relays, with the men’s team winning their race in Olympic record time. South Korea defeated Cuba 3 - 2 to win the baseball gold medal. The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive Olympic gold, beating Australia 92 - 65. Brazil took the gold in women’s volleyball, defeating the United States for the country’s first Olympic win in the event.

August 24: The U.S. men’s basketball team, featuring such National Basketball Association superstars as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony defeated Spain 118 - 107 for the gold in the event. Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru won the men’s marathon, the first Olympic gold in the event in the country’s history. The American men’s volleyball team won its first gold in 20 years. Zou Shiming won the light flyweight (48kg), the first boxing gold in China’s history.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)