Opening ceremony, 2008 Olympic Games

Held in Beijing on August 8, televised by NBC.

The Olympic Games always pits cynicism against idealism, no matter where the event is being held. When you watch women’s gymnastics, do you think about girls being starved and overworked to prevent the onset (or at least slow the advance) of puberty, or do you just appreciate the artistry and athleticism of the competitors and the apparent joy they take in their routines? When you watch runners, do you think about how many of them might be boosting their performances with some drug cocktail or another, or do you just marvel at their speed and at the precision and teamwork of the relays? When you watch swimmers, do you think about the technical arms race of suit development and the global inequality it reflects, or do you just cheer for your country and beam at every new gold medal?

Every Olympic Games is an ethical tangle—a volatile mess of unchecked commercialism, rampant jingoism, vast financial disparities, questionable judging and refereeing, possible abuse of minors, and untold human suffering—so I don’t quite understand why the Beijing event has provoked so much more hand-wringing than usual, especially in the United States, where we’ve recently ceded the moral high ground when it comes to human rights violations. (By this, I do not mean that the violations are of equal weight, but rather that once you have to start arguing over which are worse, you’ve already lost.) Perhaps holding the Games in China does taint the event in some way, but so, too, do any number of other shameful blemishes on the ideals of the Olympiad. Pretending otherwise is naive.

But pretending there is nothing redeemable about the Games is foolish, too, because there are still beautiful moments, moments that do seem to live up to the ideals of international fellowship, of celebrating participation just as much as victory. I’m a sucker for the pageantry of the opening ceremony, for example, and Beijing’s was undoubtedly the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen.

I always enjoy the parade of nations, people from all over the world coming together as equals, each happy just to be there. And the sight of the giant Yao Ming walking hand in hand with the small boy who helped save two classmates from the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake—maybe it was propaganda, but it wasn’t cheap. That kid should be celebrated.

But every Olympics has its parade of nations. What made Beijing’s ceremony special was the cast-of-thousands artistic presentation, directed by Zhang Yimou. Combining electronics wizardry with the talents of countless dancers and acrobats, Zhang created one unforgettable image after another. The black-clad dancers creating calligraphy with their bodies, the single soloist dancing upon a platform supported by a massive ensemble, the kite-flying girl flying through the air—it was all exquisitely lovely.

Yet it still made me a little sad to know that Zhang, whose work I admire, had directed the extravaganza. The first movie I ever saw of his was To Live, which introduced me to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution when I was a teenager. To Live devastated me and inspired me to learn more about Communist China—and it earned Zhang a two-year ban from filmmaking in his native country. To my knowledge, the movie is still banned there.

Since then, in little more than a decade, Zhang has managed to move from persona non grata to de facto court impresario, and it’s hard not to see capitulation in that. But is that fair? Why shouldn’t Zhang celebrate what he loves about his country? Why is it difficult for me to accept that he might be trying to make a distinction between the good in China and the bad? Don’t I try to make that same distinction with regard to my homeland?

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to worry about that, or about whether holding the Olympics in China whitewashes some of the terrible actions of its government, or about whether anyone who lives in a country in which the government rejects habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions has any standing to self-righteously condemn China. This is isn’t a perfect world, and the Olympics reflect that, but even so, I think the Games are a net positive because they point to an ideal.

The Olympics give us something to dream about: a world in which people could interact and compete on an even playing field, without animosity, celebrating talent and hard work and dedication. We should pursue that dream—and in the meantime, when we see athletes from opposite ends of the globe embrace after a hard-fought race, we might catch a glimpse of what our world could be.