12 years ago, the opening ceremony proved to be something of a watershed in the fortunes of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Prior to that, the lead up to those Games had been riddled with concerns – transport, ticketing, security, costs, cynicism and just a general crisis of confidence – “can we do it?” or “what if we mess it up when the eyes of the world are on us?”.
However, as the Sydney opening ceremony unfolded, so Aussie fingers were rapidly uncrossed and the naysayers were reduced to sulky silence as the tone was set for two magical weeks that I will remember forever.
The Sydney 2000 opening ceremony was a joyful celebration of all things Australian.
Colourful, youthful, vibrant, a bit brash and irreverent in places but also highly inventive and creative, culminating of course in that moment of cultural and historical significance as a young Aboriginal athlete, Cathy Freeman, lit the cauldron and ignited a nation’s pride.
Four years ago, Beijing was on a mission and put on an event of breathtaking scale, precision and power. A masterful show that announced to the world (as if anyone doubted it) that China is capable of just about anything.
Now, it would be impossible for London to out-Beijing Beijing but what could it come up with instead? How could Britain present itself to captivate the watching billions? And would it be the Olympic supporters or detractors who would be smiling the day after?
Well, after watching the ceremony last night, spellbound for almost 4 hours, I can say with an immense amount of national pride, that Britain pulled it off, big time.
Where do I start (apart from urging you to watch the event if you haven’t already seen it)?
Director, Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame) put together a spectacular show that took a totally different approach to Beijing, but in a way it was more impressive, given the sheer inventiveness and sense of humanity it encompassed. He is already being talked about as deserving of a knighthood.
The ceremony managed to capture an essence of Britishness that celebrated our rich history without becoming mired in the past. It reminded everyone of just how much Britain has contributed to the world, but did so in a way that didn’t come across as being too chest-beating.
The scale of the production was awesome – the way in which the opening ‘green and pleasant’ countryside landscape was converted to a scarred industrial revolution setting was extraordinary and the moment where the newly forged ‘ring’ joined four other giant rings high above the ground, to depict the Olympic logo, simply stunning.
The show was also quirky and full of surprises. The organisers were keen to keep details secret until the night and now we know why.
The film sequence that showed James Bond meeting the (real) Queen at Buckingham Palace before the helicopter trip and parachute jump into the stadium was sheer genius.
Mr Bean playing ‘Chariots of Fire’ with the London Philharmonic Orchestra whilst fantasising about ways of winning that classic slow motion race along the sand was hilarious.
Indeed, there was a rich vein of humour present throughout the entire ceremony.
But it also had its poignant moments – the soldiers paying their respect to the fallen war heroes amidst fields of poppies and Emeli Sande’s moving rendition of ‘Abide with me’ remembering those lost in the London bombings.
The show managed to cram in so many iconic British images and sounds, with a strong emphasis on music and pop culture, that I wonder what people from other nations made of it all. Even for a born and bred Brit like me, I’m sure that repeated viewings will reveal more and more gems that I missed first time in the sheer breathlessness of it all.
And in direct contrast to the state-controlled ‘message’ of Beijing, London 2012 had the confidence to acknowledge and even celebrate the right to protest and express an opinion. From the celebration of the NHS at a time when it is facing government cuts, to the suffragettes, to the dancing kids forming a CND symbol, to the Sex Pistols pogoing segment, it celebrated diversity and freedom of expression.
After all of this, the arrival of the athletes – the reason for the Games, let’s not forget – was a little of an anti-climax and also a reminder of just how many countries there are competing (204 in fact).
I have to admit that the sight of so many competitors, more concerned with filming the occasion on their phones rather than marching proudly was a shame, whilst the demeanour of some teams more resembled a group of lads after a boozy wedding looking for a pub, rather than a team of elite athletes, representing their nation. This was definitely the time to pop the kettle on.
Once all the athletes were safely in the stadium and the formalities were carried out, came the epic finale – music from Arctic Monkeys, a spectacular scene of cycling doves (I think) and even a flying cyclist, ET-style.
And then there was the flame.
There had been much debate throughout the highly successful torch relay as to who would finally light the cauldron, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted what happened.
The flame arrived outside the stadium by speed boat, driven by David Beckham, before being transferred to the people’s favourite Sir Steven Redgrave, winner of Gold medals at 5 consecutive Games.
Redgrave did not however light the cauldron. The flame was transferred to seven young athletes, chosen by Great British Olympians of the past to represent the future.
After a lap of the stadium, they in turn lit a series of 204 mini copper petals that had been carried into the stadium by each competing nation, creating a spectacular ring of flames.
What happened next was a thing of beauty as the individual cauldrons were raised high in the air to join together and create one giant cauldron. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. Quite wonderful!
Then, there was just time for Sir Paul McCartney to lead the stadium crowd in a rendition of ‘Hey Jude’ before it was all off to catch the last tube home.
It was spectacular, engaging, human, eccentric, multicultural and absolutely British – or as Dizzee Rascal described it, ‘Bonkers’.
I went to bed around 1am still buzzing from what I had witnessed, tired, exhilarated and relieved that Britain had passed the first test with flying colours.
A bit how I felt in Sydney back in August 2000….and we all know what happened then.