Olympian uncertainty principle and the Olympic opening ceremony

The 2012 Olympic Games open in London next week but before the running, jumping and the like can start the games are officially opened – but will the London Olympics’ flame set the world on fire?

The opening ceremony, like any good introduction, sets the tone for the games, and while they’ve tended to become become grander and more expensive each time, as Hollywood has proved a fair few times, big bucks do not automatically mean a blockbuster.

London opening ceremony and its predecessors

I send ‘tend to’ – the London Olympics were pitched from the start as not intending to outshine the Beijing Games. But Britain has something China doesn’t – Oscar winning storytellers, and we’re bringing in one to tell the story of the games.

Now, Danny Boyle has been criticised for relying too much on coincidence and for poor third acts that destroy what the movie had been saying up till then, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if it’s simply for what he did with Trainspotting and the effect it had on British cinema.

So what can Boyle, who will be telling a story live to the world’s audience, learn – and avoid – from past opening ceremonies?

Antonio Rebollo with the world watching

Great Olympic opening ceremonies

The opening ceremony for a spectacle, but like all stories, it has an ending – when the flame from the runner’s torch lights the Olympic flame cauldron.

For me, the ultimate example is Barcelona 1992. It combines all that a story should – it has tension right to the end (will the archer hit the target? Actually there was no doubt it would, but the audience wasn’t to know), it uses the flame as a key focus, and relies on its protagonists, an Olympian and Paralympian united. The journey’s end is not assured until the flame lights the gas.

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Let’s look at other ceremonies.

Sydney 2000 and its chairlift to the cauldron:

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LA 1974 – it had a man on a jet pack! Awesome… but he didn’t light it. Instead they decided to send a runner on run up to set off a Heath Robinson lighting device.

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Rocket Man could have done it in half the time, though fair play to the flame lighter, anyone else would have doubled up gasping for breath at the top – assuming they even made it – let alone gone straight into an action pose.

And what about old South Korea and its toasty doves? A dramatic twist in the tale… sadly not planned.

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(Finger licking fun starts at 2’40”)

Beijing 2008 ceremony

But what about the ceremony that London has to top – not just any, but one that won rave reviews for its drama? Beijing 2008.

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Everyone remembers the drummers, not the flame lighting. Looking at the clip it’s not hard to see why.

Visually impressive? Yes, like many a Hollywood blockbuster. But where is the tension? Like China and its Communist autocrats, it tolerated no chance of dissent or disorder. Impressive, but it lacked the wonder, the connection at the final moment watching the  flaming arrow shoot through the Catalan night in 1992.

Hopes for a top opener

So here’s what I hope Danny Boyle puts into the final ceremony. Let China keeps its precision stage management, for that has never been British. Let the tension be whether it comes off, let it appear like it won’t quite hold together, but someone, out of nowhere, it does.

That sums up the spirit of the host nation, Britain – let the opening fill us with wonder, let their drama, expectation and a bit of magic – and let us keep feeling the drama to the very spark that lights the cauldron.

Let there be room for uncertainty, for then there will be tension. We may not have Freddie Mercury to belt out a blinder for us like Barcelona did, but let it have a happy ending.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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