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Ali Gokal

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Opening the Games in Style

Posted: 28/07/2012 04:28

Just a few hours ago I was all ready to write a piece damning the Olympics Opening Ceremony. I had read the Guardian's guide to watching the coverage and I was suitably apprehensive. The only question was how I was going to execute the slaughter.

The first ground of attack was to be cost. £27 million pounds - a tremendous waste indeed. The money could have fed 1,350,000 hungry, desperate families for a month. It could have employed 1000 nurses for a year. A choice was made at some stage between our evening of entertainment or almost one and a half million destitute families having food and water tonight. Stark.

The second was to be the substance of the ceremony itself. The world's attention is on London - and we choose showcase the English countryside. Really? My appeal to Danny Boyle: stick to documenting the Third World or crime dramas with Ewan McGregor. I feared our Games entrée would appear drab compared to the hustle and bustle of Beijing's aesthetically vivacious opening ceremony in 2008.

I am becoming less and less a fan of Mitt Romney, and was thus genuinely concerned his negative predictions for the Games would turn out to be correct. He said of London 2012: "It's hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting." Tonight's ceremony was potentially the perfect banana skin, a facepalm moment of truly global proportions.

As it happened, it was a Belgian and not a Brit who provided the low ebb for the evening. Jacques Rogge's uncharismatic speech was out of step with a ceremony of character and spark. His sleep-inducing voice was a far cry from the flash and dazzle of proceedings, as well as the charm and good-nature of the previous speaker, LOCOG chairman, Lord Coe. Rogge will be familiar to news-followers for rejecting calls for a minute's silence to commemorate the victims of the 1972 Munich Games attack.

But what a magnificent spectacle it turned out to be. Boyle's vision was to paint a picture of Britain's history, its journey through time, and the industrial transformation that made London a sprawling metropolis. From soldiers to Suffragettes, the Royal Family to factory workers, he effected this transition with taste and splendour. This is partly what the Olympic Games are about: celebrating one country's culture and tradition in front a global audience.

There was dutiful recognition for the National Health Service and Armed Forces, as well as two obligatory rain showers. I am delighted the NHS was given such prominent position, if nothing else than because it will irk the onlooking Mitt Romney, who has committed to overturn President Obama's Affordable Care Act (and to annoy all Brits in the meantime). There were 70 sheep, too. What would we have done without the sheep?

Rowan Atkinson made a welcome droll appearance as the inept and inattentive Mr Bean, whilst Daniel Craig was on Her Majesty's Not-So-Secret Service as Bond and the Queen leapt from a helicopter into the Olympic night. Maybe the most unexpected comedic cameo came from David Beckham when bringing the Olympic Flame to Sir Steve Redgrave's via speedboat. So not only was the ex-England captain kept out of the Olympics football team, but the Olympic stadium too.

A troupe of over 1000 drummers gave the ceremony a bombastic and fulsome beat. Boyle's affinity to expression through music was enhanced as he brought every genre and era of music to life. No doubt the Queen jammed regally to Dizzee Rascal. As Hazel Irvine said, it was "a soundtrack to many of our lives".

There were more sombre moments, too. A sequence on the July 7 bombings and a moment's silence for departed friends and family of those in the stadium served as reminder that in glory is often tempered by tragedy and exuberance diluted by sorrow.

It was promising to see Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei send female athletes to the Olympics (the latter two also chose female flagbearers): a proud and worthy moment for the International Olympics Committee. My fingers are crossed that this is a step towards gender-equality and long overdue social change in those countries.

All in all there was no banana skin moment, no cause for red-faced embarrassment.

Earlier London's Mayor Boris Johnson stepped forward to rebuke Romney's broadside. "He wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready?" Boris asked a crowd of over 50,000. "Are we ready? Yes we are!" And ready London has proved to be. Perhaps the millions spent could have been better allocated. A cynic will call the ceremony it an exercise in British self-aggrandisement that screamed 'Rule, Brittania!'. Yet it was not. It was a celebration of the human spirit on these islands. In a world when we all-too-often allow ourselves to be separated through insignificant differences, the Olympics crosses borders to bring us together. There exists always the temptation for a writer on such an occasion to overstep the hyperbole mark. Nonetheless I take my hat off to Boyle. He brought the curtain down in style.

A Romney spokesman called Johnson "eccentric, odd", but Boris will inevitably sleep well tonight. His city has done itself proud. Bring on the Games.

 

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