Philip Barker: A few historical nuggets in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony
Saturday, 28 July 2012
The China Daily compared London's ceremony with their own spectacular in Beijing four years before.
"Will it make an equally impressive impact? The answer was a resounding yes."
There was one person who stole the show and it was not David Beckham, despite a high octane sequence in which he appeared as a James Bond-like figure carrying the Flame up the Thames. The world was not quite enough it seems, for this Opening Ceremony, something more was needed.
For the big screens, James Bond was about to be upstaged.
"Hallo Mr Bond," said Her Majesty the Queen! She led the way into the corridor of Buckingham Palace with 007 (aka actor Daniel Craig) in close attendance. A pre-recorded sequence showed her apparently parachuting out of a helicopter to arrive at the Stadium. That was stretching credulity in her Diamond Jubilee year, but the crowd loved it.
Organisers billed it as her acting debut. This was not quite true; back in the forties, as Princess Elizabeth, she had taken part in pantomimes at Sandringham with her sister Margaret. Those performances had been filmed by the Newsreel. As Shakespeare once said, "All the world's a stage".
Even so, it was an amazing break with Olympic and royal protocol. For one thing, the head of state is limited to the traditional 16 words to open the Games. In addition, the Queen has never given an interview.
In this ceremony she would create an Olympic record as the first head of state to twice open the Summer Games. On this night she wore pink, the same as she had in 1976, when she first opened an Olympics in Montreal. At the 1948 ceremony, opened by her father King George VI, Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted. Here we had Sir Simon Rattle.
There was no room for humour in 1948 when it was all very earnest, but this ceremony had Rowan Atkinson spoofing Chariots of Fire. With perfect timing, as it is enjoying a new lease of life as a stage play at the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.
The Ceremony had other echoes of the past. There was Barcelona 1992 as blue lights which flashed around the Stadium during the parade of nations.
Bradley Wiggins appeared in his 2012 Tour de France yellow jersey to ring the giant bell to start the proceedings. Bells ringing across the nation had earlier launched the entire day.
"Be not afeared the Isle is full of Noises," wrote Shakespeare in The Tempest and there briefly threatened a storm. It rained at the start, echoing a wet Opening Ceremony in 1952 the year the Queen acceded.
The music was unashamedly British, Londonderry Air for Ireland, Bread of Heaven for Wales, Flower of Scotland and Jerusalem for England as Jonny Wilkinson's kick which won the Rugby World Cup was seen on the big screen.
Elgar's Enigma Variations gave way to Eric Coates score for the Dambusters, before the gamut of British music embraced the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. At these Twitter Olympics, a case of OMD rather than OMG!
The dancing around the maypole recalled folkloric dancing in Munich 1972.
To greet the arrival of the Olympic Flag, there was even Muhammad Ali, who had lit the flame in Atlanta. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band joined in a quite superb instrumental rendition of the Olympic anthem. The first time Spiros Samaras' great work had been performed at a London Games. In 1948, Roger Quilter's Non Nobis Domine was used instead.
Another great hymn, Abide With Me, traditionally sung at the FA Cup final, was a moving prelude to the arrival of the teams.
According to tradition established in 1928, Greece were the first team into the Stadium.
Some of the French carried umbrellas, a little joke at the English weather perhaps? If so it was a subtle and stylish one. In 1948, South Korea made their Games debut, here the North made a point of displaying their flag with gusto after the mix up at their first match in the women's football tournament.
The music switched to Bowie's Heroes when the British team arrived in white trimmed with gold, another break with tradition, however, England's Commonwealth Games team wore a similar outfit a decade ago at the Manchester Games.
A thumping pop soundtrack accompanied the teams and this was an idea which had really taken hold at Athens when DJ Tiesto spun the decks.
How to top Beijing's cauldron lighting? To those who saw Sir Steve Redgrave as a "boring" choice, witnessed the roar of the crowd as he received the flame from Beckham, 16 years to the day Redgrave had won gold in Atlanta.
There was another break with tradition as he handed the Flame to the group of aspiring youngsters dressed in darker uniforms, which were in stark contrast to those worn by runners who had carried the flame on its journey from Ancient Olympia in Greece. All had been nominated by Great British Olympians.
At the ceremonies of the Youth Olympic Games a tradition had been established where Olympians troop the Olympic Flag into the Stadium and then pass it to a group of young athletes. This clearly was the inspiration. London 2012's twist on this was the very essence of the bid to "Inspire a Generation".
It brought to mind the youthful Stephan Prefontaine and Sandra Henderson who ignited the cauldron at the 1976 Montreal Games, each representing Canada's linguistic heritage, or the young trio who lit the flame in 1988 in Seoul.
London featured the ultimate children's fantasy of eternal youth, Peter Pan, complete with Captain Hook, and the more modern nemesis of youngsters, Voldemort from Harry Potter.
The construction of the cauldron on the night borrowed something from Sydney when Cathy Freeman stood in the middle of a ring of fire which became the bowl. On that night the mechanism jammed. Here there were no such problems. As in Vancouver, the Flame will be moved to a different location, though in the following few hours there were some who complained that it was not visible from the Olympic Park. Only in recent years in Montreal, and Seoul in 1988, could the flame not be seen inside the stadium.
Back at the "Austerity Olympics" of 1948, the modest cauldron was installed at the tunnel end of the Stadium and organisers took advantage of this fact, and turned the flame down when there was no event at Wembley Stadium. Rationing back then even extended to gas. With the all seeing eye of 24-hour television filming the Stadium from the air, there can be no such measure this time.
The Ceremony had lasted into the small hours of the morning and truly reflected the "Isles of Wonder". In the words of the bard, those who missed it, "shall think themselves accursed they were not here".
Philip Barker, one of the world's most renowned sports historians, is the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley recently. To order a copy click here.