So, I’m a London 2012 Ambassador and have tickets for the Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal on Monday 24th and 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 analyzing 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 audiences 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 27th 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 analyzed the last 8 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. For anyone wishing to do the same, here you go:
Tokyo 1964 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBBDOjEB07Q
Mexico 1968 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrOXf0TmSzU
Munich 1972 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LA8b7zifqA
Montreal 1976 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmpLL_VMAtc
Moscow 1980 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZADbwGdlbA
Los Angeles 1984 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oy34eRuS_I
Seoul 1988 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDdrSKor-Qs
Barcelona 1992 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq2pLZvcw9g
Atlanta 1996 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=df9RDteaKEI
Sydney 2000 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7oOFaLkuVc
Athens 2004 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2atZjcBqs4
Beijing 2008 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsDY1Ha83M8
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!
So, what are the critical success factors for the opening ceremony? It is hard to say since there are no official criteria for judgment. It is not like the Rio Sambadrome where all the schools are judged in categories like visual unity and plot development. It is clear that the following factors seem to be recurrent in the artistic programme.
● Enthusiasm and spirit
● Aesthetics and beauty
● Mass scale orchestration
● Kinaesthetic balletic skill
● Symbolic wit, surprise,
● Childish charm and cuteness
● Thematic clarity and cogency
● International rapport
● Technological prowess
● Musical grandeur
It is a fair bet that much of the above will be included in the 2012 Opening Ceremony. The question is whether the Organizing Committee have been content to settle into these convention, whether they have broken them and if so, if they can pull it off. It is worth recognising that London is in a peculiar position. It does not seem to have a ready made narrative to convey to the world. It lacks the thrusting coming out party national impetus of Barcelona 1992, Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008 which perhaps not coincidentally, have been seminal and perhaps the best opening ceremonies. It lacks the Cold War propaganda imperatives of a Moscow 1980 or LA 1984 or even the Olympian home coming of an Athens 2004. We won the Olympics in a boom and we are hosting it in a bust. We are a small nation on the periphery of a moribund and stricken continent who’ve had the Olympics twice before. What do we have to say??
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 hugely impressive taekwondo display and a small boy with a hoop (the killer moment!) - just Google it. It was charming with a great balance of local cultural content and global welcome. It wasn’t anything stunningly original, but did the simple things well. I won’t be sitting down with a ranking card keeping score on Friday 27th, but I do look forward to seeing what Danny Boyle comes up with, and to see if against the odds we smash it!