5 Things Olympic Opening Ceremonies Always Have …

Now we know how the 2012 opening ceremony is going to start, what’s going to come next? Having watched one or two of these before, there seems to be a pattern going on. So what are 5 things every opening opening ceremony always features?

1. A child

Forget all the problems of the past, the host nation is always much more innocent-seeming when figured as a child. There’s always one there hanging the narrative together: remember the little girl on the beach in Sydney 2000? The “Child of Light” in Salt Lake City 2002? The little boy in the paper boat in Athens 2004? Even the little girl who needed a body double in Beijing?

2. History

An Olympic opening ceremony is always an opportunity to tell a story about the host nation’s rise to fame. But history fans watch out: it tends to be a very selective story. Witness the version of Greek history presented in Athens 2004 – most of the time spent on the ancients, then quick as flash we’re up to date!

3. Multiculturalism

Olympic host nations are always very inclusive societies – rich, varied but ultimately united in their passion to stage the games. Even if history would tell another story, which is probably the reason they think up this ruse in the first place. Examples? What about the Australian Aborigines being met by the aforementioned child in Sydney or the Native American tribes in Salt Lake City?

4. Technology

Opening ceremonies are a big advertisement for the host nation being a major player in the global economy. Remember the suspended spinning cube in Athens? Of course, Beijing was all about technology. And if you can fit in the discipline of a mass choreographed display you have the added advantage of touting your national workforce for jobs in a passing global franchise.

5. Parade of nations

Of course this is what it’s all about. Here we can see who are the biggest and best, and who is small but plucky. The rest of the games are pretty much redundant after this bit. But it brings a tear to the eye …

 

Unveiled!

Image

So we have the first look at the opening scene of the opening ceremony. Cows and pigs, a cricket pitch, a selection of music events and some rain clouds – all set in a field of green. That’s Britain, for you! Such is the vision of the artistic director, Danny Boyle.

“He’s Irish, isn’t he?” was Grumpy’s initial reservation.

“You’re thinking of Roddy Doyle” I said. “It’s Danny Boyle, they’re different”.

Grumpy swiftly moved on, “What did he do?”

“Shallow Grave. Slumdog Millionaire” I ventured.

“Oh” said Grumpy. “Do you think he’s being ironic?”

Boyle maintains that there will be humour, yes. The British always have to have humour. The shame is, no-one else gets it. The London sequence in the closing ceremony was funny (no – it was!) but only if you saw it from the perspective of someone who thinks naff things are good. This is not a characteristic we Brits share with the rest of the world. If you saw it from their perspective, then you’d cry.

This is one of the things that troubles me about the extravaganza that will be Britain’s version of the opening ceremony is less than two months’ time. The self-deprecating humour that we seem to not to be able to shake off must surely be a legacy of knowing that we are a little too blessed with the world’s resources for it to be quite nice. We had to brush off the spoils of the empire with a shrug, “It’s just us Brits, nothing to worry about!”

That only makes sense, however, if we needed to pretend that we weren’t so unfairly privileged as all that. But the world has changed. We are in an age of austerity. We are once again a very small island, with only a few memories of past glory to hang on to and attract the tourists. Poking fun at ourselves risks making us look stupid. But maybe it will be fine. LOL!

Britain’s Got Olympic Talent!

Last night I engaged in dialogue on the subject of Britain’s Got Talent with a cultural historian of leisure. We exchanged feverish texts as Grumpy and I sat watching the finale  – who will win? The Streetdancing St Trinians? The dog? The Sad Singing Boy? Grumpy had his money on The Loveable Rogues, if you are wondering.

It was the dog what won. Of course. What might have been more interesting, however, for us observers of Olympification was the routine by Aquabatique, the synchronised swimming quartet made up of former Olympians. At one point, I am sure that they rendered the 2012 logo through the medium of aquatic dance. Check it out, and tell me I’m wrong:

It’s the logo, right?

It had all the elements of Olympic fun. It makes you think, wouldn’t it have been easier to just have the Olympics in BGT format? The representatives of different sports could come on, and we could vote on who we thought was most entertaining? Simon Cowell would stump up the prize money. Sorted.

A Victory for Globalisation of Doping Control

Chambers fighting his case in previous years - when he wasn't successful

In an acronym-fuelled controversy, the BOA (British Olympic Association) has lost its case against WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) at CAS (Court for Arbitration in Sport). Debates so far have focused on whether a lifetime ban on selection to the Olympic team for doping offences (which the BOA has insisted on) was fair to athletes. They may have done the crime, but they’ve done their time, the argument goes. That’s two years’ time. Then they can be selected again, says WADA.

The mission of WADA has been to globalise anti-doping policies, even putting pressure on governments to change the laws on drug offences aimed at the general population. They are in business to make sure that we are all made constantly aware of the problem of doping, and that the solution lies solely with their draconian testing regime. Apparently, there will be 5,000 drug tests at London 2012. How much will that cost? How much does it cost also to monitor every elite athlete 365 days a year and subject them to random testing? Is it worth the money (and a level of invasion of privacy that would be unimaginable for any other section of society)? Let’s see: at Daegu last summer, every athlete was tested and not one was found positive. Is that a success, or a monumental failure? Impossible to know – it depends what spin you want to put on it.

If there are no athletes testing positive, WADA says that justifies spending vast sums on its monitoring procedures. If athletes do test positive, WADA says that justifies spending vast sums on its monitoring procedures. Then they impose a two year ban, and after that the athlete returns to Olympic competition as normal.

So why the excessive monitoring and then the paltry bans? Is it because WADA are trying to keep everybody happy? They want to give sport a drug free image for governments, health agencies, advertisers, but they don’t want to damage the industry of record breaking sports performances that keep us spending our scant world resources on spectacular sporting competitions. A lifetime ban gets in the way of that one.

There are many sides to this debate, but on this issue, the BOA seems to have a bit more integrity than WADA. Now, whether we should be punishing the individual athletes for an institutionalised problem at all, that’s a different matter….

Olympic anxiety

What is it about the Olympics that worries you? This week many of us silently celebrated the 100-days-to-go milestone by completing London 2012’s online survey to help them

gather information in order to provide the best possible experience for spectators

only to be greeted with a question that sought to interrogate our worries about the forthcoming Olympics. What, asked Neilsen, the company that London 2012 have hired to do their market research, do you have concerns about (select all that apply)? I can tell you that, although prior to completing this question, my concerns were pretty much at zero, with every option they gave, my trepidation steadily built.

Even the first option

nothing – no concerns

worried me – was I being stupid? No concerns – you can’t be serious? Then they gave us a list of potential worries – each one making me imagine a new fear. For example: mobility issues for the elderly or those with disabilities. Well, probably I should be worried about that – I am aware from looking at the disabled access icons on the London Underground map that the ancient tube system is practically inaccessible to disabled travellers. This contrasts somewhat with the build up to the Paralympics games. On a different note, today I was promised the opportunity to win 1000s of Paralympics tickets if I spent more than 50 quid at Sainsburys. I won 50p off a bottle of Coke instead.

Back to the survey and the next possible source of anxiety: was I worried about my food and drink options being rubbish or too expensive? Well, probably. Was I worried about overcrowding – well yes, that is what we have been promised: “sell out”, I believe, is the term.

The next one took the biscuit: “tickets being too expensive or hard to obtain”. Is that a worry or a fact? Are you telling me that the months of complicated lottery allocation procedures for the promise of a cheap ticket that finally revealed the lucky winners were the ones who bid the price of their house for a couple of front row handball preliminaries  was not a reality? Am I just being paranoid when I think that yes, the tickets were hard to obtain?

Then the worry options listed accommodation, ticket touting, interruption to daily life, as well as the biggie – cost to the city/UK and taxpayers. Yes, I am a little concerned about that. I think you would have to be mad not to be in the age of austerity, when we will gladly cut benefits to the poor/disabled/elderly/children but build a massive sports park in East London.

Was I worried about poor sportsmanship or disappointing performances? Was I worried about transport around London or transport to London (they had it in bold like that). What about traffic congestion? Parking? Bad seats? Long queues? Had I thought about expensive prices and a lack of alternative entertainment? Was I worried I would miss out on something because of lack of information? Was I worried about safety and security issues? Protesters? Poor signposting? The weather?

One of the options even asked me if I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on enough Olympic merchandise. I can tell you now – that was not one of my concerns. John Lewis has stocks and stocks of those mini cyclops things but I still do not want to buy one.

So what is this? I was going about my business not being particularly concerned about anything, then someone comes along and makes me feel that I should be worried about all kinds of things I hadn’t even thought of! Is it all part of the build up? Are these little frissons of fear part of the spectacle? Do they want us to be worried? Is this Olympics affect?

Torch walk

Olympic Torch Relay Route Through Merton

In an uncharacteristic moment of Olympic zeal, Grumpy announced a plan: to walk the Merton section of the Olympic Torch Relay route. For those without local knowledge, Merton is a borough of South West London. London 2012.com indicated some time ago that 95% of the British population would come within 10 miles of the Olympic Flame, and, to be fair to them, they seem to be bringing it past the end of our road. While not being fully cognisant of the significance that this event may hold for us in the future, Grumpy was keen to see where else the torch was going in our manor. In particular, he wondered what sights the torch bearers would see as they traversed Merton, from Mitcham to Wimbledon Park, and urged me to document our journey as we pre-lived the torch relay.

Black Tower As Viewed From Tandem Centre

As the local Guardian reported recently, none of the torch bearers lugging the flame through the borough appear to be actually from Merton. Some of them are from quite exotic locations: a couple are from the States, Georgia and San Francisco and one of them is from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the host city of the next Olympics. Hopefully, this blog will help them prepare for the sights they will encounter on their route. Merton has quite a lot of what you might normally expect to be out-of-town shopping centres, only in Merton they are pretty much in town. One of the first the runners will pass is the Tandem Centre, scene of London rioting last summer. JD Sports was hit hard, giving perhaps an indication of the thirst for sports, or at least sports clothing among the locals. The shops have had their windows reglazed, so it looks quite nice again and Grumpy was keen to record this leg of the route. Further down on the opposite side of the road, the torch bearer will swing round another one – the Priory Retail Park – before catching a monumental glimpse of one of our most iconic buildings, The Black Tower, dubbed among the most ugly in the land (you can just about see it in the Tandem Centre photo above).

Wandle Park

Grumpy was certain that the tranquil scenes of Wandle Park would soothe the appointed runner, however, before he or she passes another retail landmark the SavaCentre, built on the site of the 12th Century Merton Priory. Not only do we have Sainsburys, but a few years ago, a flagship M&S store opened up here too. Grumpy expressed a bit of concern about whether the torch relay was going to impede him getting his dinner, what with all the crowds. I suggested that maybe we could go shopping a bit earlier that day. The Merton relay doesn’t get going until about 3pm.

The next section of the route took us all the way along Haydons Road, which is a bit lacking in photographic opportunities. So, as we walked we discussed Olympic related themes. I wondered if Grumpy had heard about the controversy over the £199 price tag that the lucky bearers are being quoted to keep the torch in their possession after the event. He was taken aback at first, “I didn’t know you had to pay to be in the torch relay. I thought you were nominated”. I reassured him that no-one was being forced to pay, just invited, and that anyway, the actual cost of the torch is nearly twice as much at £495. I did a quick calculation: if there are 8,000 torch bearers that makes … nearly 4 million quid! On reflection, Grumpy and I wondered if it would have been better to pass the torch rather than the flame (that is, after all, what we had thought they did anyway).

We also chatted about a story I read in the London Evening Standard about Olympics Minister, Hugh Robertson inciting Londoners to shop their neighbours if they overhear plans to disrupt the celebrations by protesting. Luckily, the Minister also noted that the right to peaceful protest was enshrined in English law. Quite ironic really, since, not far from where we were walking, down by the river in Putney, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was being hijacked by protesters. Everyone seems to have made the link to what might happen during the Games. Just see it as civil engagement, I say. People are taking an interest, after all.

Plough Lane Housing Development

Passing the corner of Plough Lane, Grumpy and I spared a moment to remember the former site of Wimbledon Football Club. The football ground is now no more, replaced by fancy flats, and the club relocated to Milton Keynes. Never mind, now we have AFC Wimbledon, born from the ashes and steadily climbing the leagues. Grumpy is a fan and takes the bus to Kingston to see them play at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.

St Mary's Church

Turning into the Wimbledon Park area, we left the traffic fumes behind and came upon some more salubrious sights, including St Mary’s Church. There is a record of a church on this site in the Doomsday book in 1086, so that will lift someone’s spirits. They are going to need it, because whoever gets the Leopold Road section of the run has drawn the short straw – there’s a bit of an incline, so be warned. Grumpy announced his worry that the torch bearers might not be training sufficiently. “That would be embarrassing”, he reflected. I said I thought it would be alright.

Finally, we made it to the grand finale, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, known worldwide as Wimbledon. We studied our map of the torch route, and it looked like it actually goes inside the club itself. Every time I have been inside, there has been a security guard accompanying me. They seem to be a bit over-worried about what you are going to do. Or maybe it’s personal? Anyway, I wonder whether they’ll be enough people watching to make sure the lucky bearer does not divert from the designated route.

Approaching the All England Club

Standing beneath the sign that read “Thank you for visiting the London Borough of Merton”, we knew we had reached the end of our journey. With Grumpy in grave danger of truly reverting to type, we took the 493 bus back to Wimbledon town centre. Taking the weight off in time-honoured tradition, Grumpy reflected on his trip with the immortal words: “That’s better!”

A pint

Park Life

Days are numbered for the Olympic Park Walking Tour, I am told, on the grounds that they are actually planning to finish the building site upon which it is based. Yesterday, I took the tour for the final time with my group of resilient games-seeking students, braving the inclement (i.e. freezing) weather conditions, the main roads and the unattractive Tesco at Bromley-by-Bow station, where it all starts.

So, in case you do not get to experience the tour, here it is in pictures.

At Three Mills Island, we were regaled with tales of the smells of East London past – animal glue, animal fat soap, animal bone china, sewage works … I could go on. We looked at 3Mills Studios from the outside, and heard that Danny Boyle might actually be in there, planning the 2012 Opening Ceremony, at that very moment our knees were knocking on the cold cobbles below.

Then onto the Fat Walk, so called, apparently, because it is wide and has things on either side. Nothing to do with the current obesity moral panic, then. Since the last time I was there, table tennis tables have sprouted up as well as landscaped seating areas, like little sylvan grottos.

One day this new planting will be a thick wood, and these fragile saplings a mere memory, much like the Games themselves (actually, they’ll last a lot longer since the whole thing is going to be over in a matter of weeks).

After the Fat Walk, we cross Stratford High Street and note the temporary bridge for the duration of the Olympics only.

Finally we are in spitting distance of the building site and Pudding Mill Lane DLR station. As we made our way through the maze of hoardings, a panicked student enquired “is this the way people are going to come?” I was able to be reassuring: “No, this is the backway. They’re going to arrive through the Shopping Centre – you know, enter through the gift shop“. “OK, that makes sense”, was my student’s measured reply.

The big news at the Olympic Park was evidence of the construction of the world’s largest Macdonalds (the square building with that recognisable green hue).

The Olympic Stadium is coming along as well, and they’ve got the athlete training area finished. The view from the DLR to Stratford shows all the little tents, like a 21st Century jousting arena. This is Britain after all.

The viewing gallery at John Lewis gave once more upon the scene, and below we saw in readiness, not just the Aquatic Centre but the rows of security tents. We have already had first hand experience of both.

 In the next few days, Grumpy and I will be doing our own Olympic Walk. Inspired by the revelation of the route of the Olympic Torch Relay, we are planning to walk the Merton section in South London. Check back on Sunday to find out how we got on.