Opening festivites at Olympics dazzle in London
The Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games answered one question definitively.
Yes, Queen Elizabeth II has listened to both the Sex Pistols and hip-hop.
If she hadn't before Friday night, filmmaker Danny Boyle's eardrum-pounding, eyeball-exhausting whirl through British history brought Her Majesty up to speed. Actually, in a bit of filmic sleight-of-hand, Boyle and actor Daniel Craig turned Her Majesty into the latest Bond girl.
Boyle's $42.5 million ceremony celebrated English contributions to the world from iron-smelting to the creation of the World Wide Web, from Johnny Rotten to Harry Potter, from Rowan Atkinson to Monty Python to Sir Paul McCartney. In what was surely not a tweak of the United States, one segment served as a celebration of England’s National Health Service.
History was made as well as celebrated. For the first time, every national delegation included at least one female athlete. Saudi Arabia, the last nation to permit women to compete, had three women among its contingent. As a reminder of how change takes time, they marched behind the men.
One sad bit of history went unmentioned. The International Olympic Committee permitted a moment of silence for “loved ones who couldn’t be here,” including a montage of the departed on the giant screens around the stadium. That only served to underscore the absence of any formal recognition of the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of 11 Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972.
The Israeli flag bearer, windsurfer Shahar Zubari, had a Star of David shaved into each side of his head. Zubari won a bronze medal in Beijing. He is also the nephew of Gad Tsobari, a wrestler on the 1972 Israeli team who escaped the terrorists. Zubari lifted the blue-and-white flag as he stepped onto the track and waved it vigorously. His teammates followed, smiling and waving and, like many athletes, taking video and snapshots as they marched.
On the tape-delayed NBC broadcast of the ceremonies in the United States, host Bob Costas promised to observe a moment of silence for the victims of ’72.
Aside from the oversight, the ceremonies were an energetic, irreverent affair filled with remarkable and indelible images: an English pastoral scene giving way to enormous smokestacks rising from beneath the field; an enormous Lord Voldemort; the Olympic rings emerging from a forge; glowing blankets on giant beds; Atkinson’s slapstick antics as Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra; the lyrics to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” projected on the upper decks of the stadium.
That would have been tough to imagine in 1977, when the Pistols were gobbing on the Royal Jubilee with their anti-anthem “God Save the Queen.”
Boyle stopped short of blasting Elizabeth with that particular tune, but his show featured giant pogo-ing punk puppets and rows of glam-rocking Ziggy Stardusts as well as that other Queen, the Freddy Mercury-led performers of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
All of them, from projected video of the Rolling Stones to a live cameo by Dizzee Rascal, crashed the normally staid Olympic party.
Even the traditional procession of the world’s athletes was livened up by loud, pulsing dance music. That had the athletes marching, even dancing, along at a quickened pace. It’s almost impossible to march somberly when the stadium is vibrating to techno, trip hop, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” or the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive.”
The British team entered to an enormous roar from the fans, a shower of confetti and a deafening rendition of “Heroes” by David Bowie.
The 530-member U.S. team marched into the stadium led by flag bearer Mariel Zagunis, a two-time gold medal-winning fencer. The Americans, who eventually took up half the track, were greeted by a waving first lady Michelle Obama.
And once the athletes were assembled, things really got loud with a driving performance by Arctic Monkeys. The band performed one of their own tunes, then a cover of The Beatles classic “Come Together.”
By then, of course, the world already had.
The idea of these ceremonies is always to set a tone, to steep the Games in the local waters of the host nation. In recent Summer Games in Beijing and Athens, that meant a more reverent and traditional celebration of the history and culture of China and Greece.
Here, it was a mash-up of British history and culture, with Redcoats marching in one column while a company of Sgt. Peppers followed beneath floating Yellow Submarines.
The idea was to make the home crowd feel good about itself. And it worked right from the start, when Bradley Wiggins, who became England’s first Tour de France winner earlier this month, rang an enormous bell to open the ceremony.
The ensuing celebration of youth culture and youthful athletes was capped off by a performance by the 70-year-old McCartney.
Sir Paul still has it. He had thousands of athletes and thousands more spectators swaying and singing along to “Hey Jude.”
Mike Gennaro, a rower from Havertown, Pa., was among them.
“Athletes from 204 countries all singing Hey Jude,” Gennaro tweeted from the crowded field. “The Olympics are absolutely unbelievable.”
Oddly, the tamest aspect of the ceremonies was the lighting of the Olympic torch.
In keeping with the theme of “Inspire a Generation,” seven young British athletes took the light from Sir Steve Redgrave, the legendary rower. They touched their torches to what appeared to be flower petals in the center of the stadium. The petals lit, then rose to form a cauldron at the top.
It was a brief moment of quiet elegance, immediately followed by fireworks and Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse.”
Besides the undeniable stamp of British whimsy on a sporting event so often viewed in reverential terms, perhaps the biggest difference at Friday’s Opening Ceremonies was Olympic Stadium itself. In stark contrast with the monument to millennial greatness that was the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, the humbler main venue nestled inside a reclaimed urban wasteland in East London is largely collapsible, with a comparatively tiny permanent core of just 25,000 seats.
As a global audience begins to take in nearly three weeks of competition set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most recognizable cities, it speaks to the wholly different mission of the London Games: to bring the ponderous, politicized and outsize Olympics back down to Earth.
“I think there is a bit of a responsibility on us to bring these games down to size and return them to a game for athletes, to hand them on in such a condition that other countries elsewhere around the world who have not had the Games thus far feel like they can be comfortable bidding for them,” said Hugh Robertson, Britain’s Minister for Sports and the Olympics. “I don’t feel they should be exclusively the reserve of global superpowers.”
Still, at a stated cost of at least $15 billion – or three times more than envisioned a decade ago – these are hardly the austerity games of London 1948, when visiting athletes were asked to bring their own food to a capital still healing from the Nazi blitz. The 2012 games come during a renaissance of the only city to host the modern Olympics three times. This month’s inauguration of the 1,016-ft Shard tower – the tallest building in the European Union and fitted with a five-star hotel and $80 million apartments – symbolized London’s roaring rise into the playground of choice for Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks and American bankers, even as much of the rest of Britain sinks deeper into the doldrums.
And yet, where China went for shock and awe – hosting the most expensive Olympics in history to herald its arrival on the world stage – a Britain locked in recession and fully aware that its grandest days are behind it is trying to do more with less. London’s effort is set to be better attended than the Beijing Games while costing nearly half as much. In London and host cities across Britain, the 10,490 athletes from 205 nations will compete in more temporary stadiums this year than at the last three summer Games combined.
Nevertheless, there is still grand ambition afoot. By concentrating Olympic construction in a blighted area of East London, Britain has ignited the most targeted Olympic-related explosion of urban redevelopment since the rebirth of Barcelona’s waterfront in 1992. At the same time, organizers are tapping the games to fuel Britain’s resurgence as a cultural superpower. Particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies, this nation wants to remind the world that while its soldiers may be fighting and dying in Afghanistan, back home this is still the Green and Pleasant Land of William Blake and Shakespeare, of Cruella de Vil and Capitan Hook, of Queen Elizabeth II and music royalty like McCartney.
“We’re not the biggest country in the world, and we can’t do a China-style Olympics, nor could we do something on the scale of the U.S.,” said John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, Britain’s cultural promotion agency. “But I think we can offer a celebration. What you’re going to get, generally speaking, is an image of the U.K. as it is, warts and all.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post contributed to this report.