Mike Rowbottom

Eight years ago today – it seems like a lifetime – the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics took place. 

One recalls it, still, with pride. But the memory of that heady occasion is made more complex, less outrightly joyous, by subsequent events inside and outside sport.

Opening Ceremonies at Olympic Games are hugely emotive events. Having been at a number of them over the last few, er, decades, I can vouch for a sense you get that, momentarily, you are at the epicentre of something massive.

Millions upon millions of people are watching, at this same moment, this same spectacle. (And are probably getting a better view thanks to overhead cameras that make sense of the TV-friendly choreography and imagery that has been so artfully and expensively assembled.)

But for me the London 2012 Ceremony, as for so many other Britons, was special. This was a reflection, an expression, of our own country.

On that evening I was, I am privileged to say, inside the Olympic Stadium, and I felt the exaltation of a huge event arriving. It was as if you had been lifted off your feet and carried forward by an immense wave.

It was the same when the Sydney 2000 Games got underway. The air itself seemed to contain excitement.

The Opening Ceremony for the London 2012 Games celebrated Britain's shift from being a pastoral to an industrial society ©Getty Images
The Opening Ceremony for the London 2012 Games celebrated Britain's shift from being a pastoral to an industrial society ©Getty Images

The chosen theme for London 2012's opening act – costing £27 million ($34.6 million/€29.6 million) – was The Isle of Wonder.

This took part of its inspiration from the words uttered by Caliban, the rude and usurped native inhabitant of the island in William Shakespeare's play The Tempest.

In act two, scene two, Caliban tells a party of rich, worldly and influential visitors who have washed up on his shores: "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not."

The title also reflects an aphorism by G K Chesterton: "The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder."

In the space of four hours Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning film director in overall charge of the Ceremony, created a fresh sense of wonder at Britain's transition from a pastoral to an industrial society.

The spectacle ranged through history, tipping its hat en-route to groundbreaking civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel – played by a cigar-chomping Kenneth Branagh. Chelsea pensioners marched proudly in a late parade. Pearly kings and queens followed.

And there was an enactment of the arrival in the 1950s and 1960s of West Indians who came to be known as the Windrush Generation. The latter was named after the Empire Windrush ship which brought one of the first groups to Britain in 1948.

The phrase has become familiar in the last couple of years as the British Government has been obliged to apologise and make redress for a policy intended to create a "hostile environment" for "illegal immigrants" which resulted in at least 850 people being "mistakenly detained" between 2012 and 2017, and 83 being "wrongfully deported".

Among the other striking features of the Ceremony was a celebration of the creation and expansion of the National Health Service (NHS), with volunteers dressed in classic 1940s nurses' uniforms. They arrived pushing beds and equipment, and formed a dancing centrepiece before giving way to the airborne arrival of umbrella-powered Mary Poppins figures.

Speaking personally, these were details I hadn't expected to see that evening, although I was also surprised when I saw Her Majesty the Queen parachuting into the stadium from a helicopter in company with James Bond, 007…

Sitting alongside me that evening was a dear friend and colleague. During the extended NHS sequence I turned to him and saw tears in his eyes. 

He was deeply moved by this evocation of what many British people regard as one of the defining virtues of their society – and his feelings were deepened by the fact that his father had been an NHS doctor all his working life.

In his programme notes, Boyle had remarked: "We hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement that you will glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of a better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication.

"A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone."

Stephen Daldry, the director of the film Billy Elliott, who was overseeing artistic vision at all four Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies, commented: "It is a journey that will celebrate who we are, who we were and indeed who we wish to be."

In a 2016 BBC documentary about those Games, Boyle intimated that he and his team had come under pressure from the Government, principally through the then culture secretary and later health secretary Jeremy Hunt, to curtail or excise the NHS sequence from the Opening Ceremony.

Although he did not name Hunt, Boyle said: "We did have some stand-offs.

"The forces wanted us to cancel one of the sequences, cut the NHS sequences is what they wanted to cut. They wanted us to reduce that or cut it or make them just walk around the ­stadium."

As Britons reflect now upon those scenes of eight years ago, many fear that the NHS is in danger of being compromised through being at least partially sold off. Time will tell.

At any rate, the NHS item remained in situ after Boyle had threatened to resign and take the volunteers with him.

While Boyle's vision of building a new Jerusalem has been fairly seriously degraded by much that has happened politically in Britain, events in the sporting world have also served to set the London 2012 Games in a different context.

The friend with whom I sat at the Opening Ceremony has since written numerous stories on the retrospective doping bans meted out to athletes across all disciplines who competed at those 2012 Games.

Earlier this month he tweeted that, while he still felt the London 2012 Opening Ceremony was a "magnificent occasion", he would feel inclined to stop watching any replay of it – and our screens in Britain have been full of those Games this week – before the athletes' parade, adding that "the Games themselves were probably among the dirtiest ever".

After re-analysis of the samples given at the time with the benefit of advanced testing routines, there have been more than 80 violations detected, with 36 medals across all sports so far being stripped from the original winners. Horrible.

But it's the same old argument, isn't it? How high, in truth, would the figure be for athletics, swimming, cycling, weightlifting et al for previous Games? Lower? I don't think so.

Dismal as the evidence is, you have to give credit and to be thankful for the harsh but honest process that has been initiated. In this sense, the worse it gets, the better it gets…

Meanwhile, and only a little tangentially, amidst numerous recollections of the epic track rivalry between the man who steered those London 2012 Games as chairman of the Organising Committee, Sebastian Coe, and his fellow Briton Steve Ovett – occasioned by yesterday's anniversary of the Moscow 1980 Olympic 800 metres final won by the latter – it was interesting to hear recently from the former how he viewed those distant Games.

When I asked him to evaluate the high point of his career, Coe chose two races – the retention of his Olympic 1,500m title at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and his belated major international 800m victory at the European Athletics Championships two years later.

And what of Moscow, where his shattering defeat in the event at which he was favourite was followed by victory in the longer race most expected to go to his rival? 

"Moscow was just a physically and mentally bruising experience which worked out in the end," he said. "When I look back at Moscow that was where I sort of came of age in terms of what I achieved. But I don't look back at it being an experience I really enjoyed. It was brutal."