The closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics kicked off with a sky awash with fireworks and what seemed like a collective sigh of relief.
As athletes from all countries entered the National Stadium for the celebration they mingled and showed off their medals as the members of the Chinese government, Beijing organizing committee, and more than 90,000 fans cheered them on.
The lighthearted, celebratory atmosphere in the National Stadium was far more carefree than the much-anticipated, high-security opening ceremony Aug. 8. Yao Ming laughed and mingled with fellow athletes-turned-fans from around the world while Argentine, Japanese and German athletes cheered into the cameras.
After the athletes entered the stadium, the first order of business was the final medal ceremony for Kenyan men's marathon champion, Samuel Wanjiro, who shattered an Olympic record earlier in the day.
The passing of the Olympic flag from Beijing Mayor Guo Jinrong to London Mayor Boris Johnson was a symbolic beginning of an inevitable comparison of the Beijing and London Olympics in 2012.
The flag ceremony was followed by a rock 'n' roll performance complete with a red double-decker bus, soccer star David Beckham, and a cast of East End-style dancers, all imported from London. The urban-themed performance stood in stark contrast to China's more traditional opening ceremony.
"Truly Exceptional Games
After 16 days of competition, the International Olympic Committee lauded the Beijing games as an impressive success. IOC President Jacques Rogge, who officially closed the Games at the ceremony, praised China for an "impeccable" operation that had set the bar high for London.
"You have shown us truly exceptional games," Rogge told the crowd at a packed National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest.
Rogge stated the Beijing Games would leave a positive legacy for future generations. "You have shown us the unifying power of sport," Rogge continued. "The Olympic spirit lives in the warm embrace of competitive rivals from nations in conflict. Keep that spirit alive when you return home," Rogge said.
The Beijing Olympics were an overwhelming success for China on the field as well, instilling confidence in a nation that hoped to show the world its modern development.
China topped all countries in the gold medal count with 51 golds, the most it has ever won, and remarkable for a country that did not win its first gold medal until the 1984 Games.
The United States won the overall medal count with 110, to China's 100.
Other countries also made history in the medal count. According to the International Olympic Committee, a record-breaking 87 countries won medals, the most in Olympic history. Afghanistan, Mauritius, Tajikistan and Togo picked up their first summer Olympics medals ever, as Bahrain, Mongolia and Panama won their first gold medals. India won its first individual gold medal with a first place finish in shooting.
The closing ceremony was the culmination of the most ambitious and expensive Games ever. It was also the Olympics of record-breaking athleticism. American swimmer Michael Phelps earned eight Olympic gold medals, becoming the winningest Olympian in history. Usain Bolt of Jamaica set a record of his own when he won both the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes with world record times.
Beijing was also a center for international cooperation and protest. Half a million Chinese volunteers welcomed Olympic visitors to the most expensive Olympics in history. A Georgian and Russian embraced at shooting range while their countries were embroiled in armed conflict.
Conflict and protestors also made themselves heard at the most-watched Olympics Games ever. Protestors from Students for a Free Tibet took to Tiananmen Square and other popular sites around Beijing almost daily. Religious freedom activists were detained and questioned while President Bush made history as the first sitting American president to attend the Olympics.
But overall, the IOC deemed the Beijing Games a successful one that went beyond the confines of sport.
"The world learned more about China, and China learned more about the rest of the world," Rogge said.