The games ended just as they began, with a massive spectacle of precise choreography and bombastic fireworks at Beijing's new National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird's Nest.
Announcers noted that athletes had set 38 world records and 85 Olympic records at the games, and China had for the first time captured the biggest share of gold medals — 51, with 100 medals in all. The U.S. won a total of 110 medals, 36 of them gold. The last country other than the U.S. or the Soviet Union to lead the gold medal count was Germany at the 1936 games in Berlin.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge thanked China for hosting the games, which he called "exceptional."
"Tonight, we come to the end of 16 glorious days, which we will cherish forever. ... Through these games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world," Rogge said.
Many ordinary Chinese felt that by hosting the games, China had successfully showcased its achievements.
"The Olympics have increased Chinese people's confidence. At first, there was a lot of criticism, but since the opening ceremony and the start of the games, there's been widespread praise. And this comes in a year where our confidence was shaken by natural disasters and other events," said Zhao Qiang, a graphic designer in Beijing.
Some of the political fallout from the games has not been so positive. Last week, police sentenced several members of the group Students for a Free Tibet and citizen journalists recording their protests to 10 days of administrative detention for "disturbing the public order." The group said that on Sunday during the closing ceremony, China deported those detained .
At an impromptu press conference on Friday, British activist Alice Speller said the group was simply trying to expose China for what it is.
"China is trying to show to the world this face, that they are a modern, progressing country that's open access for everyone, and it really is not the truth. The real face is one that denies freedom of speech, that denies it brutally and violently when it can," Speller said.
But some observers point out that from a Chinese perspective, the Olympics are not a time for openness: They are a time to show social order and unity, a time when you tidy up your house before the guests arrive — or at least hide the dirty laundry.
"Perhaps some of the Western governments and human rights organizations had it a little bit backwards, where they expected that the Olympics would be a time for more freedom," said Daniel Bell, who teaches political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "I think the government — and I think there's substantial popular support for this view — view [the Olympics] in a very different way, [as] a time to have temporary controls on society."
Bell argues that China's historic trend is for more political openness. Now that the Olympics are over, he said, perhaps that trend can continue.