London Olympics 2012: Games set to launch with ‘bonkers’ extravaganza
LOVE IT or loathe it, there is no escaping it. Olympics in the morning, Olympics at night and Olympics in all the hours in between.
After the longest countdown in sporting history – seven years – there are now hours, not days, left before it begins in a blaze of colour and hope and expectation.
Presuming the bloke responsible for the flags at Hampden isn’t in charge of switching the lights on at the opening ceremony tonight, London 2012 will officially begin with a celebration that has been described as “gob-smackingly spectacular” and “jaw-droppingly bonkers” by those who have been allowed behind the iron curtain to see it.
The cost is £27 million, a spit in the bucket compared to the overall spend of hosting the Games – £9 billion and rising – but to be here in London is to be captivated by the scale of things; the beauty of the stadiums, the thrill of the athletes and the passion of the people from all corners.
Up to now the opening ceremony’s artistic director, Danny Boyle, has guarded his creation like a mother would a child. Privacy has been his watchword. Those who have seen it have been asked and begged to keep the secret, but the secret is almost out now. Deep breath. This is going to be some kind of ride.
It is said that upwards of four billion people will be watching a show which Boyle calls “as unpredictable and inventive as the British people.” There is talk that, around about 9pm, a stunt man will abseil out of a helicopter and into the stadium to ring a 27-tonne bell. There is mention of Kenneth Branagh reading verses from The Tempest, there are the rumours you hear about the stage sets involving horses and cows and sheep with a musical backdrop of The Jam’s Going Underground and Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire. And then the party really gets started.
This will be the history of Britain as seen through Boyle’s brilliant imagination. From the Industrial Revolution to Sgt Pepper, from Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette, to burlesque dancers, from Flower of Scotland to Jerusalem, Cwm Rhondda to Danny Boy. And all the way through, craziness of all kinds.
It is guaranteed to be a performance to make you smile, presuming you have parked the outrage at the cost of it all. Boyle’s show is a social history and, of course, part of that history is the Games of 1948 – the last time the Olympics were held on these shores. London 2012 and London 1948, 64 years the gap but, for all the differences between them, it may as well be 664.
Then and now, are there any similarities? Well, yes. Lord Burghley, a former Olympic champion, ran the show then and another gold-laden Lord – Seb Coe – runs the shows now, but there is a rider to that. Coe has had billions of pounds to spend in realising this dream, Burghley had virtually nothing. For the Austerity Games, awarded to London less than a year after the end of World War II, Burghley was reduced to writing letters to the national press looking for contributions from the public.
There were no new stadiums, no athletes’ village, no comfort. Knowing how grim things were in London, the American delegation brought their own food – 5,000 sirloin steaks, 2,500lbs of ham, thousands of lamb chops and 9,000 slices of fresh bread flown in from New York every 48 hours.
The athletes stayed not in a comfortable village but in makeshift camps.
There were 6,000 of them holed up at the Army Convalescent centre at Richmond Park, 1,500 at RAF hostels at Uxbridge, 2,000 in billets in West Drayton. On their first night in town, the Hungarians complained. The beds were too short and the mattresses too hard. Try as they might, the athletes at these Games don’t have a single thing to moan about it.
In 1948 the opening ceremony began in mid-afternoon on the hottest day in nearly 40 years. The Americans were resplendent, well-fed on choice steak and immaculately turned out. The Brits were a different story, 400 of them entering six abreast.
“We got an ill-fitting black blazer with a pair of white bags,” said oarsman Bert Bushnell. “It was after the war and I think all the tailors had been shot. They must have been cut out with a knife and fork. The Olympic tie was so short it stopped halfway down your chest.” The ladies had to buy their own white leather shoes and socks. For one of the days of their lives they got changed in the back of a truck.
The other day in Glasgow there was an incident with a flag, an embarrassment that went around the world. There was a drama in 1948, too, as recounted by Roger Bannister in Janie Hampton’s The Austerity Games. Bannister was 19 years old and an assistant on the team.
“There was no flag for the British team,” he said. “There was less than 20 minutes to go before the British team, parading last as host nation, would enter the stadium. We tore off towards the car park on the other side of the stadium and drove furiously through the crowds which still packed the approaches. I kept my hand on the hooter so that it sounded continuously.”
Bannister knew where he could find a flag, but the office was locked and he had no key. “I smashed the window with a stone while a sergeant restrained a policeman who wanted to arrest me. Time was perilously short. I jumped out of the jeep and, using the flagpole as a battering ram with the spike foremost, I charged through the crowd.” He reached the British contingent with seconds to spare.
So, whoever was responsible for the Hampden gaffe shouldn’t feel so bad. They were merely following tradition.
Boyle’s show is going to a marvel of the 21st century, but all his predecessor had to work with was pigeons. At the high-point of the opening ceremony in 1948, young scouts flipped open wicker baskets by the edge of the running track and 7,000 birds flew into the London sky. Outside, the Royal Artillery fired a 21-gun salute and that was the end of the pigeons.
Then, as now, the identity of the athlete whose honour it was to light the Olympic flame was kept a secret. It should have been Sydney Wooderson, the record-holding runner, but it fell instead to John Mark, a young student from Cambridge University. Mark was an unknown, but two things made him different – he was taller and more handsome than Wooderson, whose nickname was “The Mighty Atom”. Watching the scene unfold, apparently Matt Busby, manager of the football team, shook his head in dismay.
Tonight, the word is that the honour will be bestowed on Sir Steve Redgrave and there would be justice in that. The stadium will be alive by then, a riot of
colour and noise, all drowning out the doubters who rail about the cost of these Games.
The cynics will have to live with it. The Olympics are here. And they’re now.
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