Opening Ceremony thoughts

I’ve worried openly about the chances of London putting on a good Opening Ceremony, so I guess I should post a reaction: it’s a thumbs up (phew!).

I thought the whole opening movement from bucolic hobbitshire through the Industrial Revolution to the forging of the Olympic Rings was superb: genuine spectacle and theatre. I loved the pouring of the iron sequence: you can imagine so many opening ceremonies where the commentator intones ‘and this represents the pouring of the iron from the furnace’ while dancers in orange jumpsuits run along in a line, but Danny Boyle managed to come up with a theatrical effect that genuinely looked like molten metal, without any need for interpretation.

The other stand out moment was the lighting of the flame, which was a really striking image.

In between there were inevitably a few lulls, but probably less than most of these events. There were some bits that were maybe a bit too parochial, but I guess if they play well at home and help whip up enthusiasm for the Games, that’s no bad thing.

I liked the fact that it felt quite personal and quirky: the content clearly hadn’t been handed down from on high by a government with a point to prove. And I liked that it was sometimes quite dark, as these things go: so the opening section was on one level a celebration of the Industrial Revolution, but it was harsh, grimy, smoky, and the image of the British countryside being torn apart was intentionally brutal. And when it came to celebrate children’s literature, it wasn’t Winnie the Pooh and Mrs Tiggywinkle, it was Voldemort and the Child Catcher. There can’t be many times that night terrors have featured in an opening ceremony.

Some moments of real theatre, some humour, some touching moments, very few boring or cringeworthy bits: wahey, let the Games begin.

» The photo (of the rehearsal, as it happens, not the actual ceremony), is © Hannah Webb and used under a CC by-nd licence.

The Olympics is a delightful oasis of non-corporate sport

I’m not being sarcastic; well, not entirely.

We’ve had months of angry coverage about the heavy-handed brand management put in place to appease the corporate sponsors of the Olympics: how ATMs at Olympic venues will only accept Visa, and McDonalds have an exclusive right to sell chips in the Olympic Park, and the torch relay is accompanied by a rolling advertisement for Coca-Cola, and you may be turned away from the events if you arrive wearing a T-shirt with a rival corporate logo.

So it’s worth pointing out that one reason they are so heavy-handed about asserting their branding rights is that there is no advertising in the venues themselves. When the sport finally starts, the athletes will not be competing in front of a backdrop of hundreds of corporate logos: just a lot of pink and blue London 2012 branding.

Which is a stark contrast to, say, Premier League football, where the players wear shirts with the team sponsor’s logo printed much bigger than the club badge, and the entire pitch is ringed by an enormous continuous pulsating distracting animated advertising billboard. Or Test cricket, which has advertisements spray-painted on the outfield, and all along the boundary rope, and the boundary boards, and the stumps, and the players’ bats, and the back of the umpires’ shirts, and the scoreboards, and where a 150-year-old cricket ground pisses on its own history by calling itself the Kia Oval.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that, if they were allowed to plaster the Olympic stadium with their own logos, so they knew they would be seen by the hundreds of millions of people watching on TV, the sponsors would relax their iron grip over every other aspect of Olympic branding. I’m sure they would like to have their cake and eat it. And it doesn’t justify the heavy-handed, joyless way their branding rights have been enforced.

But at least we should take a little pleasure in the fact that the winner’s podium is not going to have a Coke logo on it. The medal ribbons are not going to be Samsung-branded. There is not going to be a gigantic Procter & Gamble logo spray painted on the grass where the javelins land. Because if the Olympics was a normal modern sporting event, all that stuff would be true.

» ‘Olympic Torch Relay Day 64 Green Lanes 010‘ is © David Holt and used under a CC by-sa licence. The post-match interview is from an Indian Premier League cricket match. ‘Post match interview with AB De Villiers‘ is © Royal Challengers Bangalore and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Olympic opening ceremony: first impressions

From the beginning I’ve said that, although I was excited about London getting the Olympics, one particular worry was that the opening ceremony would be cheesy, amateurish or otherwise rubbish. We ought to be able to do it — there are plenty of people in the UK with expertise in putting on a show, whether it’s a West End musical, a pop concert or a Harry Potter film — but recent examples like Euro 96 or the Commonwealth Games have not been encouraging.

Well, the first details have been released. The ceremony is going to open with a recreation of the British countryside, with real grass, real trees, real farm animals, tractors, cricket being played, a recreation of Glastonbury Tor, and two ‘mosh pits’, one to represent Glastonbury Festival and one for the last night of the Proms.

So what do I think? I guess I’m cautiously positive. It’s an idea which, if it’s done well, could be impressive and memorable without trying to compete with Beijing for sheer megaspectacle. It could be a bit twee, but it could also be fun.

But that cautious enthusiasm is subject to the assumption that what they’ve told us so far is not the full story. I’m all in favour of warm beer, sheepdogs and cricket, but it would be very weird, in the 21st century, to present the UK as a rural idyll. There has to be some kind of indication that we are an urban, multicultural, modern nation. The games are being held in east London, not the Cotswolds: we don’t want a Midsomer Murders opening ceremony, whitewashed for the sake of cosy nostalgia.

But I think the organisers know that. So let’s trust that they have a few surprises up their sleeve.

Olympic tickets: achieved!

I worked out what I wanted in advance, was waiting ready at 6am when sales opened, had my order in within minutes and got to the point where it was trying to process my payment… and the website basically died under weight of traffic. But after forty minutes of trying I managed to get the order in; and I learned today that I got tickets for beach volleyball and weightlifting, but didn’t get the basketball tickets I applied for at the same time.

Not getting the basketball means I’m not going to anything in the Olympic Park itself, which is a pity; but I was keen to see the beach volleyball, because of where it’s being held: Horse Guards Parade. Which is the parade ground behind Whitehall where they do the Trooping the Colour. You can actually see it from one of the windows of 10 Downing Street.

Weightlifting wasn’t my first choice; in fact, in a very literal sense it was my 12th choice, since I applied for nine sessions the first time round. But when I’ve seen it on telly it always seems naturally dramatic, and it’s cool to see people pushing the human body to its limits. It is, and I mean this in a good way, a bit of a freakshow.

» Park Yoon Hee of South Korea attempts a lift in the women’s over 63kg weightlifting finals of the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Photo: SPH-SYOGOC/Chia Ti Yan. Used under a by-nc licence.

My [non-existent] Olympic tickets

Well, I finally got confirmation yesterday that out of the nine events I applied for for next year’s London Olympics, I received a total of zero tickets. Which is fucking irritating.

For those who don’t know, it was a ballot system: instead of being first come first served, there was a period of a few weeks when you could decide what to apply for, specifying particular sessions and price ranges, and anything that was oversubscribed was allocated at random.

And now, those of us who were unlucky in the ballot get first dibs on the remaining tickets, which go on sale next Friday. So I went to the website to check availability, and the first sport I checked was tennis; completely sold out. And not just the glamour events, like the men’s semi-finals; all sessions, all prices. All the swimming tickets are gone. And all the gymnastics, the diving, the track cycling, the BMX, the badminton, the equestrian events. There are a few sessions which still have tickets at the table tennis, archery, beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, but those are going to be immediately swamped when tickets go on sale again, I’m sure. There’s even a few tickets left for athletics, but then it is an 76,000 seater venue and they are for morning sessions when it’s all early rounds.

So it’s quite frustrating. I always said I just wanted to go and see something at the Olympics, to be part of the experience while it was in London… but it looks like I really might end up going to see something like greco-roman wrestling, or handball.

If an event is massively popular, a lot of people are going to miss out. Which sucks, but you can’t sell more tickets than there are seats. However: these games had better be played to packed venues, or I will be So. Pissed. Off. If it turns out that masses of tickets allocated to corporate bloody entertainment and the fucking sponsors end up going unused… grraah. I will go round to Lord Coe’s house and personally give him a stern talking too.

Final Olympic round-up

Well, I thought the London 2012 segment of the closing ceremony was… OK.

The whole bus stop routine was underwhelming, and the presence of David Beckham seemed a bit random, but the moment when the bus opened up like a flower was a striking image, as was Leona Lewis raising up into the air with her frilly dress trailing down behind her. And while Led Zep isn’t my kind of music — or indeed remotely contemporary, by pop standards — it did just about manage to cut through the slightly oppressive grandiosity of the Chinese ceremony. So I’ll give it a solid 6½/10. For the London opening ceremony they need to bring that up to at least 8½, but for the time being I can live with that.

Usain Bolt on Flickr, used under a CC by-sa licence.

My sporting highlight of the games was Usain Bolt. No points for originality there. I know I said the other day that the sprint events were overrated, but for once they really lived up the hype. Watching someone beat the field by such a large margin and apparently so easily was almost surreal. It just shouldn’t be possible to do that.

I suppose I ought to name-check Michael Phelps, although as all his races were on in the middle of the night, I never really engaged with his story in the same way. Is he now The Greatest Olympian Ever? Well, I suppose he might be. It’s not that he won 8 medals in Beijing: sure, that’s incredible, but I still think the greatest individual achievement at a single Games was Emil Zátopek winning the 5000m, 10000m and marathon in 1952. But if you add the five golds from Athens, Phelps has completely dominated the swimming at two Olympics now, and that might be enough to secure his place as The Greatest. Apparently he’s planning to compete in 2012: if he could come to London and win another three or four golds, that really would put him in a class of his own.

Speaking of Zatopek: OMG, the Ethiopians in the long-distance running. To have Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele both manage the 5000/10000 double was amazing. And particularly the women’s 10k and the men’s 5k; to see them sprint so easily away from the rest of the field at the end of a very fast-run race was almost as impressive in its way as Usain Bolt in the sprints. Bekele ran the last mile in under four minutes; I know the four-minute mile isn’t a big deal any more to a professional athlete, but to run one at the end of a fast 5000m… lawks.

And there’s Britain coming in fourth place on the medals table. Fourth! In Atlanta we came 36th. So three cheers for Christine Ohuruogu, Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Rebecca Romero, Nicole Cooke, and all the other medal winners whose names don’t spring to mind.

» photo credit: Beijing Olympics: Usain Bolt Breaks The World Record (Men’s 100 Meters) by Richard Giles, used under a Creative Commons by-sa licence.

Opening ceremony debrief

As I’ve said before, although I’m a  supporter of London hosting the Olympics, my big worry is that we will come up with a feeble, amateurish opening ceremony. So I watched the Chinese version with interest.

We knew they were keen to impress: well, consider me impressed. There is no way London is going to match that in terms of sheer scale and organised manpower. The Chinese put on a world class display of making-patterns-out-of-groups-of-people. So I hope we don’t even try to compete with that.

On the other hand I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. The two best bits were the spectacular opening with the massed ranks of glowing drums, and the lighting of the flame, which was a great touch of theatre. Most of the rest of it, impressive as it was, seemed a bit forgettable.

And these ceremonies always seem a bit ponderous. I appreciate that it’s physically difficult to make these huge-scale things happen quickly, and that given the amount of time and money that has gone into them they want to do them justice, but it would be great to see someone do an opening ceremony that really rattled along. Instead of an hour-long show with a great effect every four minutes, I want to see a half-hour show with a wow moment every thirty seconds. Like a finely-honed theatrical performance: if you went to the theatre to see a non-verbal performance, a dance/clowning/physical comedy type show, you would expect something to be happening all the time. I would love to see an opening ceremony that had that kind of pace to it. How do you do that for a whole stadium full of people? I don’t know.

In fact the whole ceremony could usefully be done more quickly. It’s hard to see how you could speed up the parade of the athletes, short of having them come in both ends of the stadium at once, but all the ceremony at the end — the speeches, the taking of the oaths of the athletes and judges, the carrying of the Olympic flag into the stadium, the Olympic hymn — if you could find ways to make that happen faster, without breaking with tradition too much, it would be a vast improvement. Perhaps they could carry in the Olympic flag while the speeches are going on, for example. The one part of that whole rigmarole which is a great moment is the entry of the Olympic flame; most of the rest of it is dull.

I would love the London opening ceremony to aim for exciting and fun, rather than impressive and grand. And not just because any attempt to do grand is going to look second rate compared to Beijing. London is a city of theatres: let’s put on a show. Something creative, surprising, and above all dynamic.

» Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images. Taken from the official website.

London 2012 logo reactions

As regular readers probably know, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the London Olympics. But I’ve always had my own particular private worry about them. Not transport problems or cost overruns; no, what I’ve always had a nagging worry about is the opening ceremony.

There have been two big international sporting events held in the UK in the past 15 years: Euro ’96 and the 2002 Commonwealth Games. From an organisational point of view, both were a great success. But the opening ceremonies were cheesy, incoherent, unimaginative, clichéd. Half-baked. Second-rate. And my worry was that not just the opening ceremony, but the whole style, everything that the world will remember about the London Olympics other than the sport, might end up the same way: naff and a bit amateurish.

DSC03132, originally uploaded by Dean Morris.

There are plenty of people in the UK who know how to put on a show, whether it’s an exhibition, a rock concert, a West End musical or a royal funeral. For that matter, the fabulous opening ceremony for the Athens Olympics was done by a British company. But none of that creativity seems to survive contact with the government. Whether politicians just have bad taste, or it’s the clammy hand of design by committee that ruins everything, I don’t know, but the record doesn’t inspire much optimism. The ultimate example is the Millennium Dome. It was always an event in search of a reason for existing, and the cost of the thing wasn’t exactly going to endear it to anyone, but much of that would have been forgiven if the experience of visiting it had been exciting and stimulating. Or glamorous, or awe-inspiring, or shocking, or moving. Instead, it was overwhelmingly mediocre. I had a pleasant enough day out there with my family, but it was completely unwowful and unmemorable.

I was cautiously optimistic about London 2012, though. The team seemed to be very focussed and professional, the bid logo was certainly the best of the competing cities, and the videos for the bid presentation in Singapore were very polished and even quite witty. And beach volleyball on Horseguards Parade, where the PM will be able to watch it from the windows of 10 Downing Street, is a stroke of genius. So I had a sense of shock and a feeling that all my worst fears had come true when I saw that the new logo is, basically, ugly:

London 2012 logo

Not only is it garish and lopsided, it looks so dated. And not generically old-fashioned, but quite specifically dated. My immediate associations were Max Headroom and the original Channel 4 logo; other people have mentioned Smash Hits, the video for Money For Nothing, MTV, and the titles for Saved By The Bell. In other words, there’s an immediate association with the cheesier end of 80s yoof culture.

Now I have a certain nostalgic fondness for the 80s, and I know the decade is quite trendy at the moment, but it seems a bizarre note to strike for the 2012 Olympics. And what worries me even more than the retina-scarring gaudiness of it is that note of cheesiness. The Olympics is never going to be cutting-edge and hipper-than-thou; it’s too big, too old, and too establishment for that. But it should be possible to do it with a bit of panache.

Well, I’ve been reading some of the commentary on design blogs—there’s a couple [1, 2] among the daily links in the previous post—and although everyone seems to have the same initial reaction of startled revulsion, some people have, after a little thought, offered some defences of the design. There seem to be three basic points:

1) Technically speaking, it’s a very flexible design. It scales well, it works well in black and white and a variety of colour schemes, and it will work not just in print and on screen but on baseball caps, polystyrene cups and just about any other medium. Which wouldn’t make up for any of its other failings, but is worth noting.

2) At least it doesn’t include a picture of Big Ben. More broadly: Olympic logos are generally forgettable, clichéd and bland. This one is surprising, striking, and, presumably, memorable. It has had an immediate impact, and although that initial impact has been negative, it is at least a strong reaction. And people will get used to the design in time. Possibly.

3) Most interestingly: it’s not just a logo. Because it is so visually striking, it sets up a visual signature which will be able to be carried through into all kinds of materials: TV ads, posters, banners, volunteer uniforms and so on. It really is, as the committee stressed, a brand rather than a logo.

These arguments have not quite won me over. ‘At least it’s not bland’ is a bit too much like saying ‘don’t you see? It’s ugly on purpose.’ Which just might be so clever it loops round to stupid again. And while I can see the virtues of a coherent visual style for the Games, the idea of the whole of London being plastered with lurid jaggedy shapes for the next seven years doesn’t fill me with an overwhelming sense of joy.

But at least it’s given me something to think about and a sense that, just possibly, there’s some method to the madness. Perhaps they know what they’re doing, perhaps it’ll all be OK; perhaps we won’t be looking back at the Games in 20 years time with a visceral cringe of embarrassment.

London sports day

A free idea for the people at London 2012 to engage with the public and generate positive vibes: a London sports day, held somewhere like Hyde Park. Invite people from all London’s community groups (schools, churches, mosques, clubs and societies; as broad a range as possible) to take part in a big day-long jamboree of sport. The idea would be to try and create an atmosphere somewhere between a school sports day and a country fair, with candy-floss and ice-cream and toffee apples. In fact, if you could get people from London’s many ethnic communities to organise all kinds of different street food, so much the better.

There should be some proper events, but also lots of events like egg-and-spoon, three-legged races, sack races, wheelbarrow races, throwing the cricket ball, wellie wanging, keepy-uppy, a greasy pole, standing long jump, London skittles, tug-of-war, barrel-rolling and so on. Have lots of events going on at the same time so people can wander from one to another. And you should get exactly the same kind of medal for winning the silly events as the serious ones. Or you could have serious events but keep it informal; have an all-comers 100m competition, where anyone who turns up on the day and puts their name down (or as many as they have time for) can compete. If you processed them quickly enough – say heats at five minute intervals, with only the outright winner going through to the next round – you could get through a lot of entrants in a day*. It would be important to have events for both adults and children, but not silly events for children and proper ones for adults; we want to see Seb Coe doing a sack race.

It might also be fun to have Olympians doing demonstration events like archery and judo, but the focus should be on participation by ordinary Londoners. The point would be to celebrate sport for the sheer fun of it and its potential as an inclusive community event. Not too much hard sell about why the Olympics is going to be a good thing; just try to make sure everyone has a great time and that the London 2012 logo is visible on all the leaflets and stands.

*actually, doing the maths suggests this might not be practical. hey-ho. You might be able to do something like an all-comers discus; everyone can queue up to get one throw, the longest over the course of the day wins.

Hurray for the London Olympics!

I really feel like London was cheated out of a cheerful honeymoon period of harmless excitement between winning the bidding for the 2012 Olympics and the start of the inevitable gloomy stories about spiralling costs. Cheated because, of course, it was the morning after we won that a bunch of devout young men from Leeds hijacked the news agenda.

It was always going to cost more than predicted — it’s a big capital project run by policitians. That’s what happens. And it was always inevitable that there would be a lot of whining from dismal killjoys. But the enthusiast, pro-Olympic side of the argument lost all its momentum just as it should have been drawing people in, and so we’re going to have the six years of gloomy pronostication without having had the chance to enjoy the initial moment.

Dover’s Cotswold Olimpick Games

Fittingly, 2012 will be the 400th anniverary of the Olimpick Games held in Chipping Camden every year, featuring events like ‘Throwing the Sledgehammer’ and ‘Shin-kicking’. Not to be confused with the Olympian Games in Much Wenlock in Shropshire, which, famously, gave Baron de Coubertin the idea.

NOTHING IS USED FOR TO RUN

Jean of the Fountain, one of the florets of the French literature had however affirmed it: “nothing is used for to run, it is necessary to leave at point” a maxim finally applied by London which, launched tardily in its Olympic countryside, gained with the sprint the organization of Plays 2012 vis-a-vis in Paris, engaged as for it in a long marathon. In vain. The English capital was right of its French rival, finally, by 54 votes against 50.

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