Olympics: Opening and Closing Ceremonies

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You may have noticed that this blog went into slumber mode over the last few weeks. It’s no secret why that is the case: the London 2012 Olympics arrived and everything else was cast aside. As well as the fact there was precious little else happening for me to review other than sporting events, I have to confess that I was also completely caught up in the occasion and was watching hours and hours of archery, swimming, canoeing, diving and the rest.

But now we’re back in harness and into the reviewing mode again, just in time for some overdue August contributions. And what better way to celebrate the reactivation of Taking the Short View than some thoughts on the event that waylaid us for much of the last three weeks?

I don’t think I was a exactly a cynic about the Olympics, but I confess I was greatly concerned that one small misstep could at any moment cause the whole thing to unravel and become an embarrassing disaster for the UK on the global stage. Like many people I held my breath on July 27 for the Opening Ceremony half fearing that it would be a flop while fervently hoping for the best. It felt almost direct and personal to my concerns when the first words spoken in the proceedings were Shakespeare’s reassuring ones: “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises.”

From then on, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was a spectacular, jaw-dropping success. It was a thrilling sight, bonkers and brilliant and brave: not afraid to take risks, it sailed close to the line on several occasions where it seemed it might derail and go terribly wrong. But the artistic vision, the imagination, the depth and the sheer pace and verve of the thing meant that any time disaster might have loomed we were snatched away onto a different course just in time. It felt like the sequence in Wallace and Gromit – The Wrong Trousers where Gromit is laying down track as the toy train he’s riding careers around the room, narrowly missing walls and chair legs by fractions of inches but always managing to do so to exhilarating effect.

What I think we hadn’t expected was just how humorous, sly and subversive the ceremony would be, from the Queen’s cameo with 007 through to the playing the Sex Pistol’s anthem in the presence of Her Majesty herself. Only someone who can remember the 1970s and 80s will now just how delightfully cheeky and wicked that felt, as did the homages to immigration, multiculturalism and the achievements of the NHS given the current political climate. At times the show did become almost too self-referential and self-indulgent (Michael Fish’s “no hurricane” forecast clip must have left an international audience collectively texting “WTF?” to friends and family) but in the end it didn’t matter, the world went with it and the UK audience went into shock as a single three-hour artistic performance more effectively answered the question of “What does it mean to be British?” than three decades of politicians have been able to.

The soaring, aspirational piece of theatre sent us floating on a cloud of euphoria into the sporting action that followed. I’m sure that this sense of wonderment contributed at least half a dozen extra gold medals to Team GB’s tally over the next 16 days and helped ensure that whatever cracks there may have been in the organisation (security worries, empty seats and the like), the Olympic show as a whole went on and was a magnificent success beyond even the wettest and wildest dreams of Lord Coe and Boris Johnson. I was so caught up with the whole thing myself that I even went off and downloaded the opening ceremony music soundtrack from iTunes (but then, I’ve always been a longtime Underworld fan.)

Perhaps what we’d actually been expecting from the opening were some cringingly dreadful antics like the debacle of the London bus at the end of the overblown, frighteningly expensive Beijing shock-and-awe closing ceremony four years before. Something like a Robin Reliant blowing up to discharge a tubby Batman lookalike into a facsimile of a London traffic jam, an unfunny Only Fools and Horses skit totally lost outside on anyone of the United Kingdom. If that had been the opening ceremony then perhaps we’d have just nodded our heads and said “Yes, what more did you expect?” – but it was just that expectations had been so exponentially raised in the intervening days since Danny Boyle and his collaborators rocked our world and the athletes themselves surpassed every hope and dream.

Alas, the Robin Reliant was indeed sadly one of the early moments in the closing ceremony that as a whole played out like the evil twin of the opening – almost entirely on the wrong side of that fine line separating triumph and disaster. Where the opening had been aspirational and showed the British not just who we were are but moreover who we aspire to be, the closing ceremony ended up holding up the most unflattering mirror it could find to our faces and saying: “No, actually, this is who we really are today: obsessed with celebrity and pop culture, vacuous and superficial, gaudy and tasteless,” as we put on an evening’s trade show to try and hawk some international business from this whole thing to help balance the day-after bills.

We got processions of pop stars who swung from being either old, forgotten and long past it, or latterly re-formed groups like Take That, Madness and the Spice Girls. George Michael was there to plug his latest comeback attempt, but it was noticeable that even the once in a lifetime chance of performing at the Olympics couldn’t persuade the likes of the Rolling Stones, Kate Bush, Oasis or David Bowie to attend in person, represented instead by cover versions or pre-recorded backing tapes. Even Robbie Williams found something better to do for the evening. The overall impression was as if to say, “Sorry for the misapprehension given by the opening ceremony that the UK is alive and vibrant, actually we’re rather tired and merely scrabbling at reliving former glories from the past.”

Okay, I’ll be fair: the staging was rather good (the London skyline set looked great) and the pyrotechnics at times spectacular, in terms of delivering a successful big arena pop concert for the masses. There was even a brief moment (involving Eric Idle, a cannon and some Indian dancers) that came near to making the grade for the opening ceremony. And if you considered the closing event to be just a big party to reward the athletes for the endeavours, then it looked as though they were having a good time of it in which case who are we, the worldwide audience, to begrudge them a chance to let their hair down and have some fun after all their stress and exertions?

But for me, the whole thing was summed up by the moment it came for the Olympic flame to be extinguished. The lighting of the cauldron 17 nights earlier had been a sublime moment of transcendent artistry. For a minute it looked like we’d have a similar bookend occasion at the finale, as the cauldron broke apart and splayed open in a beautiful image. But the producers of the closing ceremony couldn’t help themselves: this wasn’t spectacular enough for them, so they distracted from the cauldron by shooting off some fireworks around it and then lowering a gaudy illuminated phoenix over the top of it, as Take That strolled on to remind everyone that the British Empire had once ruled the world and everyone should be jolly grateful to us and leave extra large contributions in the tip jar on the way out to help us deal with our double dip recession.

As a way of reverting the UK to grim normality after the Boyle-induced euphoria two and a half weeks earlier, the closing ceremony did its job remarkably. We were back down to earth with a bump, and Twitter – which had been in atypically high spirits throughout the 30th Olympiad – returned to factory default settings of cynicism and snarking in a split second. By the time the flame was extinguished and the Olympic flag handed on to Rio, it was actually a relief that it was all over and done with and we could set aside all our fleeting hopes and dreams and just back to the daily commute again, with our gaze firmly fixed down on the ground rather than up at the stars.

So no pressure on you, Paralympics. But really, we’re counting on you now to deliver the happy, exciting and uplifting ending that London 2012 really deserves. Don’t let us down: show us that the best is still to come.

All of the Olympic broadcasts are available on the BBC website until January 2013.

One thought on “Olympics: Opening and Closing Ceremonies

    John S said:
    August 31, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Enjoyed your piece. Agree with a lot of what you say. I did enjoy both ceremonies – here’s my blog on the musical aspects.


    Have also written a few blogs on the Olympics in my Sportsthoughts series if you are interested, including a summary of my favourite sporting moments and some observations on what this all was doing for Britain at no41. Again, quite an overlap with yours.

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