The Everlasting Flame was only the second Official Film to be directed by a woman, the first since Leni Riefenstahl in 1936. Before the Beijing Olympics, Gu Jun spent seven years researching and recording the preparations for the 2008 Games. Her film Dream Weavers: Beijing 2008, was released in China six weeks before the Beijing Opening Ceremony. This film focused on Chinese hurdling star Liu Xiang, female gymnasts during their almost brutal training, a family displaced by the building of the Olympic Village, the construction of the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and the training of a Beijing SWAT team. Gu also produced a film in 2004 that described the visit to Beijing of the Olympic Flame as part of the Athens 2004 Torch Relay.
For The Everlasting Flame, Gu employs a mixture of techniques, weaving together high-quality camerawork and editing, snippets of a variety of sports and Bud Greenspan-style profiles. In fact, Greenspan is credited with being one of the film’s many executive producers. Gu begins by briefly introducing us to seven non-Chinese athletes: defending Olympic champion canoeist Tomasz Wylenzek of Germany; U.S. BMX rider Kyle Bennett; Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt; two-time Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia; and Iranian taekwondo defending champion Hadi Saei Bonehkohal and his teammate, Sara Khoshjamal Fekri, the first woman to represent Iran in taekwondo.
Gu devotes a great deal of time to the spectacular Opening Ceremony, including rehearsals and director Zhang Yimou’s meeting with bureaucrats who must approve his plans. These government representatives are identified on-screen as “Experts” rather than by their positions.
After a half hour, Gu presents us with our first competitive event, the final of the men’s 100 meters, which Usain Bolt wins in world record time. Later we see him dancing at a party, winning the 200 meters with another world record and passing to anchor runner Asafa Powell in the 4×100-meter relay.
Along the way, Gu devotes a few minutes to world record setters and another segment to Chinese successes. References are made to athletes overcoming hardships and injuries. For example, Maarten van der Weijden of the Netherlands wins the inaugural 10-kilometer open water swimming race seven years after overcoming leukemia with the aid of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. The defending champion in the 110-meter hurdles, Liu Xiang, with the weight of China’s expectations on his shoulders, is forced to withdraw on the starting line because of injury. Speaking to the media afterwards, his coach, Sun Huiping, breaks down in tears. Canoeist Tomasz Wylenzek collapses after placing second in the Canadian doubles-1,000 meters final and falls into the water. He recovers in time to earn another medal in the 500 meters event. Kyle Bennett, in the BMX quarterfinals, takes a hard fall after a Dutch racer crashes in front of him. After receiving medical attention, he insists on remounting and completing the course. During the section about Hadi Saei, Gu introduces us to two-time gold medal winner Steven Lopez and his family. Lopez’s pursuit of a third gold is derailed because of a penalty call. South Korean weightlifter Lee Tae-young, who earned a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, tears a calf muscle during his first lift, but tries two more lifts anyway, although he cannot complete them,
We are also introduced to fencer Jujie Luan, who won a gold medal while representing China in 1984. Ten years later, she moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. With the Olympics in her birth country, she returns to compete at the age of 50.
As beautiful as is The Everlasting Flame, there is an extensive dark side to the Beijing Games which is not portrayed in the film. Some of the problems were not known at the time. During the world records montage, the film hails the achievements of Chinese female weightlifter Liu Chunhong, the defending champion in the light-heavyweight division. After her doping sample was retested several years later, her Beijing gold medal was taken away from her.
Several times during the film, Usain Bolt’s joy is contrasted with the disappointment of Asafa Powell, who places out of the medals in the 100 meters, just as he did in 2004. In the Beijing 4×100-meter relay, he runs the anchor leg for the Jamaican team, taking the baton from Bolt and crossing the finish line in first place. However, in 2017, a retest revealed that another Jamaican team member, Nesta Carter, tested positive, and both Powell and Bolt lost their gold medals.
American taekwondo champion Steven Lopez, presented along with his family as an inspirational story, was, in 2018, permanently banned from the sport because of allegations of sexually abusing a child.
Not mentioned in the story of Kyle Bennett is the fact that, despite dislocating his shoulder, he qualified for the semifinals anyway. He died four years later when he crashed his truck while driving under the influence of alcohol and without a seatbelt.
Some of the problems with the Beijing Games were known at the time. In The Everlasting Flame, the international Torch Relay is described as a “Journey of Harmony.” However, in reality, it was disrupted by numerous protests against the Chinese government’s suppression of the Tibetan people, as well as its extensive human rights abuses. In San Francisco, when an American Torch runner displayed a Tibetan flag, Chinese paramilitaries accompanying the Flame, grabbed her torch and shoved her to the ground.
The film shows a series of fireworks “footprints” leading to the Opening Ceremony. It looks impressive; however it was not really part of the Opening Ceremony. Rather, it was computer-generated and spliced into the international video feed.
And then there is the story of the Chinese “women” gymnasts, who look suspiciously underage in a sport that required participants to be at least 16 years old. In fact, researchers used Chinese sources to prove that some of the gymnasts were indeed underage based on their entry forms in earlier events. But the IOC and the International Gymnastics Federation cleared them to compete, and the Chinese won the team event.