The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

The opening ceremony of the London Olympics — from an expat who witnessed Beijing’s spectacle firsthand

As regular readers will know, The Displaced Nation has some special connections to Britain. We therefore held our collective breath when the Olympic ceremony opened on Friday evening in London. How would the Brits measure up to the Chinese extravaganza of four years ago? Britain is after all a declining power — which is not exactly true of China! Today we turn to guest poster Shannon Young, an expat in Hong Kong who has written a book about her firsthand experience of attending the Beijing Games, for a verdict.

Four years ago, 2,008 drummers opened the Summer Olympics in Beijing with a thunderous rhythm heard ’round the world. Spectacular feats of coordination, drama and energy followed, wowing the world with the precision and ambition of the production.

Heralded as the greatest live performance in history, Beijing’s opening ceremony was a tough act to follow.

It was a tough act for me to follow as well. I’d been in the stands as the rumble of the drums swelled through Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. But as the opening ceremony of the London Games was about to begin, I found myself at the kitchen table of my grandparents’ home in Oregon (I am back in the United States for a visit) watching a live stream on my computer.

Oh we can be heroes…just for one day

A landscape that looked rather like a shire appeared, complete with sheep and idyllically dressed country folk. The agrarian scene was quickly replaced with the frenetic energy of the Industrial Revolution, but the contrast was obvious: London was not trying to “beat” China.

Quirky, funny and nuanced. Those three words characterize the July 27th, 2012, ceremony. It displayed the heart and humor for which the British are famous — especially in the form of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), whose rendition of “Chariots of Fire” completely stole the show.

London brought the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics back down to a human level. It was no Beijing, but it was the kind of show that speaks to people.

Famous for such films as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle infused the London ceremony with a cinematic flare.

Like many other spectators around the world, I loved the short film in which James Bond picked up Queen Elizabeth in a helicopter, which they (or their stunt doubles) proceeded to jump out of, for their “entrance” into the stadium.

There were other nods to cinematography throughout the production, including to Boyle’s own films, mixing the mediums of live performance and cinema. The costumes were intricate when viewed through a zoomed-in camera, but I had to wonder how much of this was for the camera and not the live audience. The spectators in the stands may not have been able to enjoy the details.

Only rock ‘n roll (but I like it)

There was a rock-and-roll feeling to the show. The dance numbers were more like big parties than expertly timed performances. They were full of mini-storylines and surprises.

The segment that began with a nightmare of the villains of children’s literature ended with the raucous defeat of a gigantic Lord Voldemort by none other than Mary Poppins.

The soundtrack was fun and familiar, liberally paying homage to Britain’s many contributions to culture.

A high-octane production like the Olympics opening ceremony needs to have quiet moments, too.

In Beijing there were eerie performances, such as a single dancer gliding across a glowing scroll.

In London, the quiet moments were solemn. There was a moving dance performance dedicated to the victims of the July 7th bombings on London transport, and a moment of silence for those who fell in the two world wars.

New takes on old classics

The Parade of Nations was faster than usual, bringing 204 teams into the stadium in record time.

The production culminated in the lighting of the torch, which was done in a particularly elegant fashion. David Beckham delivered the torch to retired British rower Sir Stephen Redgrave in a neon speedboat on the Thames.

In a touching act, Britain’s venerated Olympian then delivered the torch to seven promising young athletes, who lit the torch together. The torch itself was composed of many copper petals which rose together on long stems to create the Olympic cauldron.

London’s opening ceremony drew many laughs and perhaps a few tears. There weren’t as many breathtaking moments as in Beijing, but the show was like the British: quirky, personable, and utterly self-assured.

Shannon Young is an American writer currently living in Hong Kong. She is the author of The Olympics Beat: A Spectator’s Memoir of Beijing. She writes a blog called A Kindle in Hong Kong and tweets @ShannonYoungHK.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We will be giving away several copies of Shannon Young’s mini travel memoir of the Beijing Olympics this month. The first will go to a commenter on this post — please share your favorite moment from London’s opening ceremony, or a memorable moment from a previous Olympics.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Expat Moment with Anthony Windram!

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Images: A London Olympics sign courtesy e-costa on Flickr; author Shannon Young and two of her photos from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

7 responses to “The opening ceremony of the London Olympics — from an expat who witnessed Beijing’s spectacle firsthand

  1. Tanika July 31, 2012 at 7:40 am

    My family and I appreciated the nod to the West Indians who came to Britain, many thinking of it as a Motherland. The arrival of the Windrush is an important moment in history that is often overlooked. Also, I’m glad Britain didn’t try to ‘beat’ China and did things our way. Can’t beat the Bean.

    • Shannon Young July 31, 2012 at 11:59 pm

      Thanks Tanika! I felt that the ceremony did a nice job of showing lots of different moments in history, and I enjoyed the eclectic nature of the production. The UK has a different type of confidence than China, and it really showed.

  2. Jack Scott July 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    As I had hoped, it was a mesmerising salute to British polish, quirkiness, individuality and diversity – funny, moving, creative, self-deprecating, inclusive, mildly subversive with tongue jammed firmly in cheek. The eccentric cultural cabaret was infused with subtle (and not so subtle) political messages to the great, the good and the incompetent both at home and away. It mattered little to me that much of the humour might have been lost on the globally bemused. It was worth all the money just to get the first lesbian kiss ever broadcast on Saudi TV.

    • Shannon Young August 1, 2012 at 12:10 am

      Jack, I was surprised at how much I laughed during the ceremony. I have a British fiance, so I probably shouldn’t have been, but I loved how much fun it was. I did wonder if some of the jokes would have been lost on the non-British audience, but I’m sure many of the references still resonated with many.

  3. Tony James Slater July 31, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    I discovered a unique difficulty with living in Australia last week – the UK is almost exactly opposite us time-wise, so the opening ceremony happened at around 4am. It was a test of my resolve and dedication to my former homeland, to see whether I could stay up to watch it.
    I failed.
    I blame the wine…
    (But I hear it was a lovely ceremony. And very nearly as relevant to my life here as the Chinese one was to me in England four years ago… which is to say, not.)
    Mr Bean eh? And Mary Poppins! Gosh, doesn’t it make you proud of our cultural contribution to the world…

    • Shannon Young August 1, 2012 at 12:14 am

      Ha ha, I can see that it might have been a difficult feat to watch the whole thing. I’m on holiday in the US at the moment, where NBC made the unfortunate decision not to show the ceremony live. I found a stream online, so I was able to recognize the big chunks they cut out during the prime time broadcast. If you end up watching the rerun, definitely go for the BBC version.

  4. ML Awanohara August 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Shannon, I agree that the Beijing vs London Olympics opening ceremonies make a curious contrast. Certainly, the Chinese government would never have tolerated Danny Boyle’s parade celebrating political agitators from the past — including suffragists, Afro-Caribbean immigrants who fought for minority rights, and the Jarrow hunger marchers, who protested against unemployment in 1936. Apparently, Conservative MP Aiden Burley denounced the ceremony’s “leftie multicultural” content on Twitter:

    “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen — more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!”

    Beijing, while not emphasizing anything political, was nevertheless making a powerful political statement. In essence the Chinese were saying: “We’re back, we’re great, and you’d better not mess with us or we’ll crush you with our big toe.” No wonder some people likened it to the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, organized by Hitler and the Nazis.

    I enjoyed what I caught of London’s opening ceremony, but then I used to live in Britain… I’m not sure, however, that I’d go as far as Jack Scott in his comment above, that it mattered little to me that most of the humo(u)r was “lost on the globally bemused.”

    Has Britain, in reaction to its declining global status, turned too far inwards and become parochial? If so, then that’s almost as bad as the Chinese, who have turned outwards in such a menacing way… Perhaps these two “great” countries are mirror opposites?

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