London 2012: Most political Olympics opening ceremony since Berlin 1936
The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was a brilliant creation of spectacle, ingenuity, dazzling effects, wit (a highlight was Mr Bean subverting the LSO and its conductor Sir Simon Rattle), history, musical and literary tributes all wrapped up with a hi-tech catherine-wheel of sight, sound and colour.
The narrative and ideas behind the ceremony were Shakespearean in their vision, power, effect and eloquence.
The most interesting aspect of it, though, was that it was the most overtly political opening ceremony since the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The political message at London was that Britain could recover its greatness and become Great Britain once again if the united kingdoms of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England re-embraced the radical politics that unleashed the industrial revolution and the welfare state.
This calling for a new commitment to a British version of Radicalism was a profound political message. And it was promoted with the powerful metaphor of a new British ‘Jerusalem.’
William Blake’s iconic poem talked about the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that defaced the land of ‘England’s mountains green.’. He called on his fellow countrymen to follow him with his ‘bow of burning gold’ and ‘chariot of fire’ to build a new Jerusalem ‘in England’s green and pleasant land.’
For Danny Boyle, the genius creator of the opening ceremony, a hero of the new Jerusalem are Isambard Kingdom Brunel, voted as the second greatest Englishman, after Sir Winston Churchill.
Brunel constructed the first major British railway, the first propellor-driven transatlantic steamer. With his designs and engineering genius he revolutionised, in fact, he created modern transport.
There was a small reference to Churchill in the ceremony. His statue in front of the House of Commons acknowledged the helicopter bearing James Bond to the Olympic Stadium.
Churchill, though, represents an elitist Britain, a Britain of class prejudices and an antagonism for popular culture. Brunel, splendidly played by Kenneth Branagh in top-hatted geniality, represents a different Britain, nation where everyone deserves respect and the amenities of civilisation and, most importantly, any one from any strata of society can make a telling contribution to national life.
By getting the Branagh/Brunel to recite Prospero’s famous speech from The Tempest and preside over pageant of leading events in modern British history, Boyle was suggesting that this is the model for the new Jerusalem.
Another hero honoured in the opening ceremony, identified sitting in front of a computer, was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a latter-day Brunel who created the world wide web (www) and, crucially, insisted on rejecting any patents for his invention.
The world wide web ‘is for everyone,’ he insisted. This generosity of spirit and democratic vision is in the finest traditions of the British radical movement.
The third hero of the opening ceremony was the British National Health Service. Eddie McGuire (who was out of his depth with the historical allusions for most of the ceremony) made a valid point when he noted during the NHS that ‘it would have been unlikely for Medicare to feature in the Sydney Olympics.’
But the point being made about the NHS is that it is the epitome of the best of the welfare state. Good medicine ‘for everyone,’ like good internet connections, the ceremony suggested is at the heart of a good society.
While the kids were going through their paces in their hospital beds and being tended to by their nurses (clearly of many nationalities) and being read stories opening up to a segment on the brilliance of British literature for children, I thought of Mitt Romney in the stands being confronted with public praise for an institution (the NHS) he is trying to deny to the American people.
SBS has just run a documentary film on Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics. The documentary revealed that Hitler was opposed to a Berlin Olympics on the grounds that it would expose Germany to hostile scrutiny. But Goebbels, the spin-master, convinced him that done cynically and brilliantly organised the Berlin Olympics could be turned into a triumph of the Nazi doctrines.
So the Nazis invented the Olympic torch ceremony and connected the Games with the supposed first Ayrans, the ancient Greeks. The youth of Germany was prepped to produce bucket loads of Olympic medals. The athletes in the opening ceremony were expected to give the Nazi salute to Hitler. The stadium and Berlin were flooded with Nazi symbols which smothered the Olympic symbols.
The Berlin Olympics became the Nazi Games.
It’s history now that Jesse Owens ruined the notions of Ayran supremacy by winning four gold medals. The irony here is that the last medal, for victory in the 4 x 100m relay, was won at the expense of a fellow American sprinter of Jewish origins who was ditched from his place on the relay team because Goebbels insisted on no Jews running for America.
The first Olympics after World War II were held in London in 1948, as a sort of antidote to the Nazi nastiness of 1936. And although there has been a political connotation behind many of the Olympic choices (Munich represented Germany being allowed back into the community of nations, as it were, and Tokyo the same thing), the opening ceremonies have generally concerned themselves with expressions of national pride and achievement, rather than a direct political message.
You can see the contrast, for instance, in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the London 2012 Olympics.
Sydney’s terrific ceremony was a celebration of the Olympic ethic and ideals, and a tribute to Australia and Australiana. Remember the toy Kangaroos, the vegemite and the galloping horses? There was no overt political message in the ceremony which was triumphantly nationalistic in tone and spirit.
The London ceremony had some celebration to the Olympic ideals, with the unexpected but deserved tribute to rugby union’s role in the rise of modern sport and the Olympics. Baron de Coubertin adored the famous headmaster of Rugby School, Dr Thomas Arnold. He made a vow on Arnold’s tomb to bring the values of Rugby School as expressed in its rugby game to France. He refereed the first rugby club final in France in 1893 and three years later presided over the creation of the first Olympics in 1896.
But the main body of the opening ceremony was a thesis in favour of Radical politics based, intellectually, on what we were taught at university was the inevitability of the Whig interpretation of British history.
In theory, the true ideals of the Olympics are, or should, above the partisanship of local politics. But I applaud the decision to disregard the conventions and give the British people a lesson on how they may be able to create a Great Britain once again.
If this meant having the most political opening ceremony since the Berlin Olympics in 1936, then so be it.
And now with that political message well and truly delivered, let the Games begin …
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
- 2012 London Olympics