Why I Hated the Olympic Opening Ceremony

June 27th, 2012 was the first Olympic Opening Ceremony held in Britain in 64 years. Intricately planned, impressively performed and extremely long, it was the spectacle that the Olympic committee had been teasing for seven years since Britain was announced as the 2012 host of the games. And I hated it.

I began watching with little in the way of expectations. It was inevitable that this affair was to be a spectacular one; The Games are all about spectacle and seeing as this event was the culmination of literally years of hard work and focus it only makes sense to go big or go home. The thing I found fault with most though is how we chose to go big with Britain, because for more than an hour that was all that was on offer.

The show opened with a performance seemingly that chose to take an abstract approach to chronicling just how great Britain is. You know the focus is definitely on us because everyone who isn’t wearing a red coat is wearing a top hat and unless this is the bizarre clone filled follow-up to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter this is definitely period Britain in full force. There was no real narrative to speak of, mostly just dancing tailored to the movements of how we used to churn butter and fight. From there on a stream of female protestors marched ‘onstage’, some early 20th century soldiers were seen wandering around and giant  steam funnels rose out of the ground whilst everyone looked up in awe, all set to inspirational music.

It is at this point that I’m confused. When did the Olympic games cease to be about international sportsmanship and bringing the world together and start being a venue to brag to whoever’s watching, in this case ‘the entire world’, about how great our country is. “Hey remember women’s rights? We gave it to them. Remember World War I? We were there. Did you happen to know that we were champions of industry, from it’s conception up to it’s steady decline and eventual collapse? Yeah, that was all us!”

Things swiftly moved into a pre-filmed skit in which Daniel Craig, playing his James Bond, made his way to Buckingham Palace to meet none other than Her Majesty herself. What began as a genuinely amusing sketch quickily devolved into…not really being a sketch anymore as instead of literally any interactionbetween the two we were treated to a montage of how excited the city of London was that the Queen was going to the Olympic ceremony. Even the CG statue of Winston Churchill was waving at the helicopter and if I never think about that one image again, it will be too soon.

By Matt Lancashire, via Wikimedia Commons

Another dance routine, this time featuring nurses and patients from the NHS was, as everything previously had been, technically impressive but at the moment that J.K. Rowling appeared to read some sick kids a passage of a book I got that nagging voice stuck in the back of my head again: “Hey, just so you know, the National Health Service thing? Totally our idea. And you keep your hands off Rowling, she’s ours!”

I don’t have any problem with using celebrities in this sort of hype-fest. In fact, it makes complete sense to try and connect with the rest of the world by bringing in one of the biggest British movie stars in the world, or the best-selling author of this millenium. My problem is the context of these presentations: namely that there isn’t any, and the shows are set up in a way to make us swallow the big spoon of patriotism they’re shoving down our throats and be happy about it. For at least one hour, the opening ceremony is so focused on being everything British that any sort of Olympics connection feels tangential at best.

With all that in mind, there were some genuinely fantastic moments. The sequence chronicling British music over the past 50 years was fresh, tasteful and extremely well put together, almost fulfilling my hope that the ceremony would simply be a series of concerts showcasing the best tunes we’ve offered the world over the years. The Emilie Sandei sung Abide With Me featuring Akram Khan and a troupe of other dancers was also breath-taking and proved a fitting tribute to the 2005 London terrorist bombings.

With that, it was time for the actual Olympic stuff to begin with a highlights video of the Olympic torch travelling throughout the United Kingdom. It feels unfair to point at the over-patriotism of this sequence but did we really need David Beckham to be driving the boat that carries the torch across the Thames? The answer is no. No we didn’t.

I understand that hosting the Olympic Games is a big deal for Britain as a country but this opening ceremony was just too much Britain for me. The pride on display was not in reaction to anything at all which is why the show was so lacking in context and ambiguous. That pride felt forced, contrite and unearned. It felt like propaganda. That voice from earlier on is now telling me, commanding me, even,  to be proud, but with a show like this I can’t do it. I can’t sit here and feint pride for living in a country so quick to expunge all the negativity in order to feel blinding pride, that ignores any positivity in recent memory in favor of a context-free glory show.
What would have made me proud, what I hope to see in another 64 years when we might next host the Olympic Games is a ceremony that celebrates the interactions we’ve had with other nations, that celebrates the friendships and amicably overcomes the disputes; I’d like to see Britain host a truly international Olympic Games…that would make me proud.