So, I'm a London 2012 Ambassador and have tickets for the Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal. As a proud Londoner, I have to say I'm worried. I was torn about the 2012 logo, thinking it original in concept, but lacking subtlety in execution. So I have been curious to see what the opening ceremony would be like. The nightmare that recurs is that London would contrive to get it spectacularly wrong.
So, what should we expect? An electrified London Tube map with dancing buses? Holograms of mascots Wenlock and Mandeville dancing along inflatables of Jedward?
As a commercial semiotician working in brand strategy, I'm drawn to analysing big events as a communication medium full of signs, messages and meanings. There are two peculiarities with an Olympics Games opening ceremony. Firstly the target audience is so incredibly diverse. Besides mollifying the IOC and ensuring the flags, oaths and torch lighting protocols are correctly executed we have a negative and splenetic tabloid press, and if that wasn't enough billions of viewers and press in 200 odd countries to worry about. This provides massive scope for miscomprehension.
Secondly, there is something disingenuous about opening ceremonies. Officially they offer the world a colourful and heartfelt welcome at the start of the Games. Since the 1936 Berlin Olympics they have been about propaganda, about projecting 'soft power' and competitive identity - done surreptitiously. So, national symbols will be made to dissolve into floral motifs and children dressed in national colours singing an anthem will be trotted out to captivate the crowd.
Like it or not, there is always an underlying competitiveness lurking in there smuggled in amongst the bonhomie and international solidarity. It is like the Eurovision song contest with the same potential for bitchery, but without the voting.
If by some miracle, London does 'smash it' on 27 July, we can expect jingoistic tweets of "In your face, Beijing" or "Sydney eat your heart out" or words to that effect. If, on the contrary, the event is a cringeful flop we can expect it to be resoundingly rubbished by press and public alike. That feeling of national inferiority (we never win anything, symptom of Broken Britain etc) will be back with a vengeance.
So for some context and to start imagining the context for the standard we can expect in 2012, I've analysed the last eight opening ceremonies. A trawl through YouTube and uploaded Olympic Ceremonies (the IOC were twitchy about making archive footage available) has been painful but necessary viewing.
In assessing each opening ceremony, what I have done is take into consideration the jump in quality from the previous ceremony. So, there've been some clearly superior opening ceremonies.
Moscow in 1980 employed 25,000 gymnasts under Bolshoi direction and included some gravity defying manoeuvres. It was a massive increase in quality from Montreal 1976 and established the first proper artistic programme.
Barcelona 1992 took things up a level in terms of aesthetic coherence with the show patterned on the art of Picasso, Dali and Miro. Sydney 2000 was a massive step up in both scale and coherence from Atlanta 1996 with an eight chapter, five hour extravaganza using high wire tech for the first time.
Beijing 2008 was so impressive in many senses because it was the synthesis of all that had gone before it. It boasted the awesome choreography of Moscow, the charm of Seoul, the aesthetic fussiness of Barcelona and the scale and unfolding plot that so captivated us in Sydney 2000. It was actually not astonishingly original and the central calligraphy leitmotif was predictable and culturally chauvinist. It was in some senses a giant kowtow to the splendour of past and future Chinese hegemony. It was also, it has to be conceded, one of the most impressive entertainment spectaculars I had ever seen to date.
So, that is sorted then:
All we need is the breathtaking scale of Beijing, the whimsy and charm of Seoul and Moscow, the aesthetic and cultural verve of Barcelona, the imagination, charm and fun of Sydney and a jet pack man from Los Angeles 1984 and we should be just fine!
Realistically, the best that can probably be hoped for is for us to do something on a more modest scale. Let's face it, we will not emulate the breathtaking scale of a Sydney or a Beijing. We should just attempt to also avoid the incoherent tawdriness of Atlanta in 1996 and the cryptic insularity of Athens 2004.
Seoul 1988 is a good example of a very solid Olympic games opening ceremony. It featured dragon fighting, a huge taekwondo display and a small boy with a hoop (the killer moment!). It was charming with a great balance of local cultural content and global welcome. It did not do anything stunningly original, but did the simple things well.
I won't be sitting down with a ranking card keeping score on Friday 27, but I do look forward to seeing what Danny Boyle comes up with, and to see if against the odds we smash it!
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