The opening ceremonies have become a showcase of pomp and circumstance, some hit and some miss. They have become the plaything of world-renowned directors, cinematic displays broadcast either live or tape-delayed — in the case of west-coast viewers in the United States, delayed over six hours after their actual start — for a worldwide audience of billions.
When Beijing seemed to set an improbably-high bar four years ago, the London organizers knew that they had something that simply couldn’t be matched. That Zhang Yimou showcase, employing 15,000 people in a $100 million extravaganza that stunned the world, was always going to leave whatever came next in the shadows.
But the Danny Boyle production, which covered the gamut from The Tempest to the NHS, giant parade-float versions of children’s book villains, James Bond and the Queen skydiving into the stadium and a slew of video features interspersed in with the live action, got London its money’s worth. For what is estimated to be somewhere between a quarter and half the budget of Beijing, Boyle pulled off a showcase that lived up to the modern tradition that has become the traditional opener of the Olympic festivities. Finally the Olympic flame entered the stadium; finally the athletes — those who didn’t have to sleep for competition the next day, at least — were able to don the assorted accouterments selected by their national federations and parade around the stadium behind their flags.
There proved a healthy global debate about the moment of silence for the slain Israeli Olympians of 1972 that IOC president Jacques Rogge would not assent to inserting in the opening ceremonies. With an unprecedented amount of access and interconnectedness through the internet and its social-media platforms, Olympic fans around the world were able to express their views in a way that kept alive the memory of those athletes four decades after their murders in Munich.
Should the IOC have acted? Perhaps, though at the same time it ought to equally be the prerogative of the organizers to make such decisions. A minute seems like an insignificant thing to debate in this situation, something no doubt worthwhile in the grand scheme of things and a mere sixty seconds. But in a world dominated by the timing of television, and in a program that already saw a half hour cut from its original script, a minute is not as insignificant as it originally seems.
Could the IOC have imposed its demands on Boyle and the London organizers? Should they have, say, bought commercial time from every one of their network broadcasters worldwide for a simultaneous moment of silence? The problem is that there is neither a clear-cut answer nor a consensus on whether the gesture should have taken place at the opening ceremonies. But considering Boyle made subtle references to suffrage and censorship and protest throughout his three-hour show, it seems that it would not have been too out of place.
Regardless, the opening ceremony was exactly as expected — where Zhang Yimou’s Beijing ceremony was evocative of modern Chinese cinematography, with its masses of people in perfect formation and its flying spectacles and all of its pageantry, Boyle’s show in London was understated and more like an independent film jabbing through to the psyche without beating any one message overhead.
And then the athletes paraded, finally, the slow processional pressing against the time limit. The Greeks entered first, the British team last, and in between the line of nations marched one by one in alphabetical order. Along with the Indian contingent marched one interloper, a graduate student from the southern city of Bangalore named Madhura Nagendra who had been living in London. Nagendra who failed to dress the part yet passed through to the field somehow to get in line with her Indian compatriots.
The torch entered the stadium, and the flame came to life. Paul McCartney stirred the crowd with an encore-like performance. The Olympics lived on into another quadrennial, finally commenced officially after two and a half days of competition had already been completed. The quintessentially quirky celebration of British culture fit perfectly with the off-kilter scheduling of the Games themselves.