Olympic opening ceremony – commentary

Olympic opening ceremony

The wisdom of crowds

Jul 27th 2012, 18:13 by R.B. – The Economist Magazine

OLYMPIC opening ceremonies are a strange beast. Because nearly everything else that happens at the games is guided by what the International Olympic Committee commands, the nation host often sees the opening show as its great chance to present itself to the world. London and Britain certainly did that over nearly four hours on July 27th. But what message was the country trying to get across?

Those of us lucky enough to go to the ceremony itself were treated to a 50-minute prologue, followed by a further 40-minute “warm-up” of the crowd, starting at 20:12 (get the gimmick?). So I had a lot of time to ponder the initial scene, a tableau of so many stereotypes of Britain: pretty green fields and a water mill, sure, but also maypoles, neatly trimmed hedgerows, thatched cottages and fences. At one point a (real) herd of sheep ran onto the (fake) fields; bunches of happy rural folk did somersaults, played football on the village green and performed jumping jacks (a well-known medieval game? I’m not sure) in their rural idyll. 

Most worrying to me personally were several clouds on strings being walked around the stadium—they were actually rather pretty, but does the country really need to do anything else to reinforce the most sustained national stereotype of all that it rains all the time? (At one point Mother Nature even obliged and did rain for just a few minutes.)

And yet, and yet. There was a fantastic atmosphere, the crowd was doing Mexican waves, and people seemed more than happy to sit and wait for the show itself to begin. When it did, it was counted down by the second to 9pm, the Olympic bell rang to the cheers of the 80,000 spectators and giant screens above the stadium flashed with geese, the Thames, Eastenders, marching tunes, a whirring helicopter, cricket and the Clash. London’s opening ceremony was on: loud, exhilarating, perfectly staged and deeply, deeply weird.

As with other opening ceremonies, Britain chose to tell its own story. Unlike some, though, the ingredients of this narrative were neither dictated nor directed by the government. In Beijing in 2008, for example, the Chinese conveniently highlighted long-standing institutions such as the Great Wall and Confucius, but managed to leave out most of the Mao years, including national incidents such as the great famine and Cultural Revolution. London’s version, though, was not by Britain Inc but Danny Boyle, a talented choreographer who chose his own line.

So the story of Britain unfolded. There was a nod to each part of the United Kingdom (national folk songs; images of Northern Ireland, the Highlands and Welsh rugby). Then the green pastures and the singing of “Jerusalem” gave way to chimney stacks emerging from the ground, an extraordinary and rather sinister long scene where drummers drummed, the world grew darker and people marched on in top hats or strode by in brass bands.

The media booklet given to the press helpfully provided a balanced explanation that talked both about the rise in living standards and all that the industrial revolution made possible in the 19th century, as well as the tough conditions, long hours, the splitting of families and the prevalence of disease in the cities. As a stage show this was all rather dramatic partly because it was so loud. It was nevertheless extremely bizarre, and if you were watching on television you would have been forgiven for missing some of the nuance (and the sheer volume) of the supposed balance. The scene swiftly moved on to the war, poppies and remembering the war dead.

Is that the right story to tell? I had mixed feelings. I respect the idea of admitting the bad as well as celebrating the good; no development is without losers and down sides. But there is only so much you can tell in a purely visual performance even of such magnitude. There were beautiful moments, such as when the five Olympic rings were forged in the factory at stage level and then rose, still apparently sparking and red hot, high above the stadium. It was spectacular, for sure. I’m not sure it made much sense. It definitely didn’t have anything to do with sport.

Then came perhaps the most confused image of the whole show though also, admittedly, one of the funniest, when Daniel Craig, playing the fictional James Bond, went to collect the queen from Buckingham Palace to bring her to the Olympic stadium. Just consider how many messages were being sent here: of all Britain’s many creative contributions it highlighted a make-believe spy whose originator was British but who has become a Hollywood confection through his films; it also reminded anyone that cared to think about it that the International Olympic Committee is so powerful it can even command the queen what to do. Perhaps this makes Britain the ultimate global city, responding to the whims of the market and its demand. Others could see a different story, one of a declining imperial power lapping at the heels of those countries and institutions who still have some influence. Maybe it was just a bit of fun.

The scenes became more surreal: velvet-suited marchers rocking to the Beatles represented the 60s; dancing nurses brought in beds to celebrate the nation’s “beloved” NHS as the media pack called it; dancers in the stadium spelled out the initials of the world-leading children’s hospital at Great Ormond Street. These institutions are certainly worth celebrating. But it was one of the many instances where there seemed to be a tension about who the audience for this show really was: the world being welcomed to London or a cynical nation of Brits being convinced that the Olympics was part of their life too.

The performance flashed through other landmarks of British life: Mary Poppins vanquished other evil children’s characters (though Britain’s famous nanny never encountered any baddies in her books); there were scenes about a family living in a three-bedroom Barratt-style home (“the kind of house in which most people live,” reckoned the media pack); a boy and a girl meeting on a train and clearly having some kind of encounter (a celebration of binge drinking?); Charlie Chaplin; a sing-song of “I’m forever blowing bubbles”; a fantastic sound track of the greats of British pop music.

This was consciously not a celebration of high culture. Sure, Kenneth Brannagh read a speech from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The London Symphony Orchestra got to play too, but they performed Vangelis’s famous theme from “Chariots of Fire”, rather than a more classical theme. There is nothing wrong with that, but again it tells an interesting tale of what was being highlighted here: one shot of a mini but lots of the underground; excerpts of famous British films, far fewer of poets, authors or dancers. Apparently some Conservative MPs were even tweeting about how it was too left-wing—too much trade unionism and the like.

The closing scene was a dramatisation of the “struggle between life and death using such powerful images of mortality as dust and the setting sun”. Nothing to do with Britain. Nothing to do with the Olympics. Even as an artistic performance, in my view it had little to do with life and death. The music was nice though. And fortunately the athletes started coming on after that and brought the whole thing back to earth.

The procession of athletes from all over the world is what the opening ceremony is really for. It is a strange jump after all the other shenanigans on stage as the parade is long and largely lacks drama, yet it is extremely inspiring. It is amazing to see the sheer gleaming joy and excitement on these people’s faces. These are the ones who put an exclamation mark on the Olympics. Most of them have trained for years to even have a shot at being there to process and later to compete: More than 200 nations have come, over 10,000 athletes and as many dreams of gold. (A few unfortunates may already have had their dreams dashed—the archery heats, for example, took place on Friday before the games had officially started.)

The stadium is too big to get much sense of the politics of all this. This is the first games at which every competing nation has sent athletes of both sexes and it was notable that a lot of flag-bearers were women—even some Arab countries chose to send a woman in front, though Saudi Arabia’s three female competitors marched behind their male countrymen. I was interested to see how the Syrians would be received, but there was no palpable response.

But “Team GB”, as the British team has become known, electrified the crowd. Thousands of people cheered, David Bowie’s “Heroes” blared, and a helicopter dropped 7 billion pieces of paper on the stadium to represent each person on the planet. It was like a giant wedding: confetti fell everywhere, a cheesy idea that looked spectacular and made the spine tingle.

Speeches followed. Sebastian Coe, who has led the British bid, was short and hit just about the right note. Jacques Rogge, head of the IOC, was less succinct and less engaging. The torch came down the Thames on a boat steered by David Beckham, he passed it to Steve Redgrave, the flame came in to the stadium, the cauldron was lit, fireworks shot across the sky and the crowd cheered. The nearly four-hour spectacular was over.

Will the world be wiser about Britain and where it stands in the world? Probably not. Is it any clearer what message the country is trying to project? Not really. But those people I spoke to who were there mostly had a terrific time. They had fun. Hopefully those at home, most likely helped on by beer and snacks, will have enjoyed parts of it too. Maybe that’s enough. “Olympics: The Musical” is over. Now the real games begin.

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  • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On 07/31/2012 at 8:43 am

    My dear cousin swims for gold today at the 2012 London Olympics. Olympian BRITTANY VAN LANGE will be competing in the women’s 100m freestyle and Niall Roberts in the men’s 100m freestyle at 10 am tomorrow. Beautiful Brittany will be in lane 6.
    Guyana is also being represented by 400m athletes Aliann Pompey and Winston George plus Judo sensation, Raul Lall.
    Let’s cheer and celebrated Guyana’s greatest treasures and wish them the very best!

  • ndtewarie  On 07/31/2012 at 1:22 pm

    Well! well!!! well!!!!!! how come Guyana didn’t send up anyone and places like Haiti and Tanjekistan send delegates. Shame on the Guyana gov’t. too busy politicking I guess!!!!!!

  • BERNARD N. SINGH  On 07/31/2012 at 11:23 pm

    What about the SLAVES that built GB, there was no tribute to them.

  • MummyDogg  On 08/01/2012 at 2:03 pm

    Get the feeling some people are too blind to see Guyanese team march proud and while they they didn’t honour Queen Boadicea either but they did give a major nod to HMS Windrush which bought the first West Indians over in the 50s, the Notting Hill Carnival and the the most beautiful love story between 2 black kids – so what are you trying to say. As proud to be British as I am Guyanese!!!

  • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On 08/01/2012 at 5:37 pm

    Brittany Van Lange gets an A plus for effort.


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