Before Friday’s extravagant though eloquent, humane yet hilarious, lively and just plain lovely opening ceremony to the Games of the XXX Olympiad, Linda Philips stood outside the Olympic Stadium, smiling as big as she could.
Two days before, she’d been in New York City for a wedding. After hours of scouring the Internet, Philips found tickets to the opening ceremony. It wasn’t much of a choice, really. The fashion designer from North London ditched the wedding, flew back to London, bought a sequined Union Jack dress on High Street and then, by Friday evening — not yet recovered from jet lag — found herself walking into the first Olympic opening ceremony in her country since 1948.
We all put our own meaning on the Olympic opening ceremonies. It’s a time when the world can put politics aside and get together for sport and fair play; it’s a time for countries to trumpet their nationalism; it’s an idealistic break from that constant ticker of bad news scrolling past; it’s a meaningless dance party that serves only as a prelude to the medal count.
Oh, and this: “It will show the world what the British are about,” Philips said. “Our press is always being so horrible about Britain. So negative about their own people. It will be nice to celebrate ourselves for once.”
On Friday night, in what not long ago was a dodgy, downtrodden part of northeast London, the organizers of the London Games did all of that and more, stirring together the British knack for drama with that irreverent British sense of humor and kicking these games off in the most British way possible.
At less than half the cost of what China reportedly spent on its stunning opening ceremony four years ago, the Brits elegantly zipped through 300 years of British history, from the Englishman who first smelt iron in a blast furnace and sparked the Industrial Revolution to the Englishman who invented the World Wide Web and sparked the Information Revolution.
In between there was about every famous Brit you could think of, linking the nation’s present to its past in the sort of theatrical way that could only be done in London:
Kenneth Branagh in a top hat, reading from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Daniel Craig’s James Bond, who fetched the Queen from Buckingham Palace, flew her via helicopter to the Olympic Stadium, and skydived with her toward the stadium.
J.K. Rowling standing atop a grassy hill and reading not “Harry Potter” but “Peter Pan.”
The London Symphony Orchestra playing the “Chariots of Fire” theme with Mr. Bean on keyboard.
And what proper British celebration would be complete without both David Beckham and Sir Paul McCartney?
Yes, London proved it could put on a proper show, culminating in a beautiful and unexpected lighting of the Olympic cauldron-slash-chandelier in the middle of the stadium.
“I have never been so proud to be British and to be a part of the Olympic movement as I am on this day at this moment,” Sebastian Coe, the chair of the London Games and a four-time Olympic medalist, told the crowd. “The Olympics brings together the people of the world in harmony and friendship, and aims to celebrate what is best about mankind. All my life, I have loved sport. You have to love sport to compete at it. There is a truth to sport, a purity, a drama, an intensity, a spirit that makes it irresistible to take part in and irresistible to watch.”
For the next 16 days, we’ll obsess over the athletic storylines of these Olympic Games. Will the United States continue its four-Olympiad streak of winning the medal count, or will China build on Beijing, when it won the most golds? Will Michael Phelps add to the legend of his record-setting gold-medal haul in Beijing, or will rival Ryan Lochte rain on his London parade? Will the biggest rock star at these Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, repeat as fastest man on earth? Will this fresh group of American female gymnasts — no one is left from the 2008 team — win America’s first team gold since 1996 in Atlanta? Will the beach volleyball tandem of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh win a third gold medal in a row?
And will one of the 80 participating countries that have never won an Olympic medal — like the six-member delegation from Monaco, a country that’s been to a record 26 Olympic Games without medaling — surprise us all and bring Olympic glory to their small nations?
For these 16 days, we will talk about these athletes in terms of glory or failure. There will be heroes. There will be goats. And by the time the Olympic Stadium fills again on Aug. 12 for the closing ceremony, we will have concrete answers to all of these questions, in the form of medal or no medal.
But Friday night was about something less tangible. This was about an ideal rather than a storyline. This was about valuing the worldwide aspiration of the Olympic movement over athletic achievement. This was one of the few times when the motto for the London Games — “Inspire a generation” — wasn’t cheesy at all. This was a bit of a tonic to the state of the world today.
It is, we’ve all heard, a time of global strife. Iran and Israel are at loggerheads. Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t the stalwarts of stable Middle Eastern democracy we’d hoped. Both the American and world economies are still in a tailspin that started just after the 2008 Summer Games. Climate change threatens us all, we’re told. So does terrorism.
But the Olympics? They’re an escape from all that. The Olympics reflect the best of humanity. The games reflect our need as a people to go higher, faster, stronger. The games reflect our desire to compete, and our best impulses toward fair play, humanity at our most courageous. The games show that humans can live together in peace and sport, if only for a couple of weeks.
Sure, the games can reflect the worst of our world, too: the phalanxes of security reflecting our fear of terrorism, the money pot reflecting our materialism, the doping reflecting our win-at-all-costs ethic. But the best part of the opening ceremonies of an Olympic Games? We don’t focus on any of that, not yet.
Call it Olympic naiveté that was on display Friday night, when the UN secretary general called for “warring parties to lay down their weapons during the games.” Call it a too-extravagant display in a time of supposed austerity. Go ahead and take the cynic’s view on the Olympic oath, “for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” No, thanks. I’ll call it all the purity of these Olympic Games.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at email@example.com.