When the Olympic Games are finally over, it is a good time to give my impressions. I will do it about the different sports I enjoy, but also about the overall feeling of the games. Starting with the perception about the organization and opening and closing ceremonies. This post is long, so if you really want to read, press “Continue reading” only if you have the time to spare.
Watching the ceremony on BBC, one could be excused in thinking that this had been the best ever. The same could be said about the absolutely uncritical sports journalists (whose “expertise” in sports seems to exclude any other sensibilities) from around the world who watched the show from Danny Boyle.
I should outright say that, as a director, I find Danny Boyle interesting only at times. He is capable of the good (Trainspotting, Sunshine) and excellent (28 Days Later, Shallow Grave, 127 Hours). But also of the really bad (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) and the mediocre though amazingly overvalued (Slumdog Millionaire). For his opening ceremony he did the same as in this movie: he took one good idea (start with bucolic Britain then build the rest of the set) and then ruined it by mashing together references without sense, order or structure. Most hosts use the Opening and Closing ceremonies as showcases of their culture, spirit and history. Britain ended up doing nothing of the kind. One got the impression that Britain had an idyllic existence in the countryside, started the Industrial Revolution and afterwards the only thing of notice was their pop music industry. No backdrop of the myths and legends (King Arthur and the search for the Graal would fit so well with the Olympic ideals), nor about Britain’s voyages of exploration; the Enlightenment, the many artists produced (J.M. Barrie being read by J.K Rowling defied logic) or even the determination of Britons in the face of challenges.
All the different and completely unconnected pieces of the show made no sense at all. Why was the NHS honored? What was that with the house and the teenagers? And why, oh why, did we have to suffer through so many renditions of Beatles’ songs? The sketch with the Queen was interesting, but thrown out the window when she appears with an air of wondering why she was there at all. She probably was as bored as me, but I am no monarch.
The hoisting of the flags went as it should, but one wonders who thought of the lighting of the cauldron. The cauldron itself was beautiful and the cones brought by the delegations a wonderful idea. The concept of taking young athletes to light the cauldron was not new (Seoul did it in 1988) but fits in the spirit. The problem was that everyone kept on expecting someone else to receive the torch and light the cauldron. Nothing against Steve Redgrave (he would have been my choice), but having him enter the stadium with the torch was a terrible idea, as the process peaked too soon. If someone had brought the flame, given it to a few other former athletes (BBC could provide a few) to run around the track with it and only then passed it to Redgrave who could light the cauldron with the youngsters, the emotional side would have been stronger.
The final impression was of someone (Boyle) who wanted to organize a big, loud and visually catchy show without substance. I learned nothing new about Britain. Only that their only good music was produced by people who are now retired.
If I found the opening ceremony too simple and missing the purpose, the closing ceremony was a disaster. The best part of it was when I turned off the television halfway through the Spice Girls. I kept wondering what did those songs have to do with Olympics and why did we have to see only songs, especially when the actual groundbreaking ones were sang by people without voice and the newer ones are hits which will be forgotten by next summer. It was nice to see Bowie not wanting to show up (probably had better things to do, such as sleeping) and I was laughing when his song “Fashion”, an ironic critic on the fashion industry, was used to introduce british contributions to the activity (i.e., models). The best was when we were treated to a campfire-like rendition of “Wish you Were Here”, a song about depression and anguish of separation which was played apparently only because of the title.
If the idea was to start a massive end-of-the-games party, Fatboy Slim would have been enough. As it was, one wonders what the objective actually was. The farewell impression was overall of “good riddance”.
One day I saw one bridge on which an engineer friend of mine was working and asked him whether a certain planning error could be fixed. He answered that all was possible, provided enough money was available. The same can be said about organizing Olympics. Everything can be made to work, provided there is enough money. Therefore, the difficult is to organize Olympics which will be uplifting and can transmit enthusiasm to the spectators and athletes at the venues and to people watching over the TV. That was the biggest problem in London.
Certainly the British responded massively to the call. They were enthusiastic and supportive but, truth be told, that was not too difficult, especially since Britain presented a delegation of high quality. If the home team does well, it becomes easier to be enthusiastic about the overall games. The question is whether this was transmitted to everyone else. The short answer is yes and no.
Take the ticketing problems. It became obvious that it did not work. The Economist published one week ago a piece (link for registered users) on why it was a bad concept. The organization also failed to realize that having tickets was only the first step for spectators coming from somewhere other than London. From closer by, Britons had to look for transport which would arrive early enough (a complicated enough endeavor, I was told by a few people). From farther afar, people had to arrange overnight stays in one of the most expensive cities in the world. This probably meant that some people just gave up on the idea of going there (I was one of them). In the end, the venues were well packed, but the initial impression was not ideal.
The public was enthusiastic but a similar effect as that seen in Atlanta 1996 was obvious: whenever there were British athletes competing, the enthusiasm would reach orgasmic levels. In other cases, the support was polite but hardly enthusiastic. Nobody can expect the audience to know who each athlete is, but some information about them beforehand would not have been wasted.
Then, two personal annoyances. The first concerned the positioning of the cauldron. Placing it where they did, the organisers guaranteed that only the athletes and public would enjoy its sight. Anyone else from outside would be denied that view, a shame in my opinion. The other point was the fact that the road events (especially the walking events and the marathons) did not finish at the stadium. Beijing had already done the same and I cannot help but feel sorry for being denied that big roar the athletes get when entering the stadium after running for so long. Finishing on the street may be more democratic, but less uplifting and inspiring.
One word about the TV transmissions. I will not lay blame on BBC for some of the problems. The lack of information during the longer races (cycling, marathon, triathlon) was absolutely ridiculous. Someone watching from about halfway would have no idea on which position a certain athlete would be in. no information on the number of the camera (usually camera 1 is in front, camera 2 follows, etc.), no information on intermediate times and distances or even different groups and a dearth of cameras covering the athletes who were more delayed (in the women’s marathon, the Ukrainian athlete came from behind to claim 4th place and nobody had any idea where she had come from). In Athletics, different competitions would take place simultaneously without any information on the standings. This happened also for those following the website, which had no useful information to those without TV.
All in all, Britain organized the Games well, but the feeling was one of a good Olympics, but not spectacular. It takes some work to beat Sydney in 2000, but London did not really try.