It was an amazing opening ceremony. For a moment, I thought I’d got the wrong channel and was watching a live show of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ (what with an opening landscape that looked deceptively like the shire and all that forging of rings and rising of towers…) but that aside, it was a well thought out, extremely well produced (even the imperfections were planned) slick, stylish, funny, poignant and generally celebratory ceremony. It was no Beijing – thank God (if they tried to replicate the brilliant artistry and technical genius of 2008 it would have only flopped) – it was London, and it worked.
But it also didn’t.
Danny Boyle, artistic director of the ceremony promised he would deliver something uniquely British. This he did. Mr. Bean’s role in performing the Chariots of Fire theme was a stroke of genius, as was the Queen’s entrance to the stadium, aided by everyone’s favourite secret agent.
As all opening ceremonies, this too was a celebration of youth – to the extent that they were given the highest honour of lighting the flame. But unlike most, it wasn’t only perfect, healthy, sporty youth, but also unhealthy and vulnerable youth – and those that care for them, who were given prominence. The section performed by NHS staff and child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital was thoughtful, well-conceived and brilliantly performed; not with military like precision and technical prowess, but with the enthusiasm and imperfection that only amateurs can bring, making it all the more real.
The ceremony also celebrated and remembered the old. An ageing Paul McCartney brought the ceremony to its crescendo. A devastatingly fragile Mohammed Ali was given recognition. It also gave a place of prominence to human rights defenders – they carried the Olympic Flag in. (Though it would have been nice to see some less high profile – grass-roots – actors also thrown into the mix.)
Everything (almost) that was attempted at the opening ceremony worked; was thoughtfully conceived, creatively put together and enthusiastically performed. And it worked.
But it also didn’t.
Danny Boyle promised to take the viewer on a journey through the history of Britain. Industrialisation was celebrated as were the music and film industries.
Colonisation was also addressed –through a well-balanced piece that celebrated the adventurism of the explorers, acknowledged the great riches Britain amassed from elsewhere and apologised for injustices past and present.
At least, if it was, I would have viewed the rest of the ceremony with less cynical eyes.
No, this was a very convenient – selective – history. All good. All celebration. No bad. No reflection. One may argue, that this was the point – it was a celebration – no point dragging the mood down by raising that ugly issue, particularly when half the countries represented at the games and the opening ceremony, were victims of this ‘episode’ in history.
But I argue otherwise.
As demonstrated above, the ceremony was more than capable of being thoughtful, of addressing difficult issues – including aging and sickness. Surely, this was the best platform to acknowledge colonialism? In the midst of a celebration, around the theme of sport, in the company of representatives of all independent nations – many of which were former colonies. Surely, you wouldn’t find a more appropriate moment to reflect on this aspect of the past and remember all those who suffered? The ceremony after all, did have time for such reflection – silences were kept for the victims of the World Wars and of 7/7. With regard to both, history recognises the Brits as the good guys. The failure of the organisers to equally remember victims of violence perpetrated by this great country was disappointing and also undermined the validity of the other two silences.
That of course got me thinking more cynically about the Olympics in general. It can be so much, and it can do so much; instead, it has become another example of many things that are wrong in this world. Disproportionate amounts spent on creating industrial revolutions in a playfield while workers around the world continue to endure the most appalling conditions. Corporate presence – no, dominance – of an event that is supposed to appeal to the most fundamental values of goodness and fair play. All powerful countries parading their flags and strutting in pride while they continue to inflict the most horrendous atrocities on their people (Seeing the Myanmar team walk round, knowing how they treat the Rohingya in Arakan State sent shudders down my spine).
Danny Boyle and his team had the opportunity at the outset, to challenge some of the more dominant, ugly trends that have taken over the Olympics. Acknowledgement of the injustice of colonisation would have gone a long way to set the right tone for the games.
They failed. But perhaps I expected too much.