No one likes the Olympic opening ceremony anymore. We still watch it, but only by force of habit.
The ceremony manages the trick of being totally predictable, but not the least bit comfy. It is full of tired choreography and tiresome speeches. Aside from some cute children and the possibility of a celebrity sighting, there is little to recommend it as entertainment.
The athletes parade takes forever. The storylines are cloying. And don’t even get started about the special effects. The first time you saw something projected onto the floor of a stadium, it was wild. Now, they’re doing it in high-school gyms, yet the Olympics A/V team still treats it like the invention of moving pictures.
But the big problem is nostalgia.
An opening ceremony reminds us of a time when people believed in the binding power of such displays. It takes us back to Vancouver, London and Beijing 1.0. That was before the gyre started widening for those of us in the West. Back when it still felt like we were history’s permanent winners.
Now that most people have lost faith in the idea of infinite growth and possibility, one of the Olympics’ primary functions is reminding us of when we did. But not in a good, aspirational way. More of a sad, disillusioned way.
The first time China rolled out one of these things, the goal was awe. If that was zigging, this time it zagged. Instead of exciting our envy and fear, Beijing 2022 organizers decided to bore us into compliance.
This disappointment to come was made possible by the surrender of the Tokyo Olympics. Faced with a Games they didn’t want to stage in a country angry at them for doing so, and having fired the show’s director hours before it made its debut, organizers in Japan crumpled. It may have been the worst thing I’ve ever spent an evening sitting through, and I have watched a lot of bad August baseball.
Anyone could top the Tokyo opening ceremony. You dancing around your living room while your cat plays the tambourine would be more fun to watch.
All that was required was a minimal injection of enthusiasm. Just bulk buy some bottle rockets and flip on some Bob Seger.
Beijing did that, pretty much literally. There were fireworks. There was music. And that’s it.
Steven Spielberg called the 2008 Beijing Games’ opener “the grandest spectacle of the new millennium.” More people watched it than have ever watched anything else. So although we don’t pay taxes in China, it was hard not to feel just a little ripped off this time. On the plus side, 2022′s ceremony was short – a tight 140 minutes.
On the downside, as of about an hour after it ended, it’s difficult to remember anything about it. There were a bunch of guys waving Day-Glo pool noodles. Did that happen or did I hit my head in the bathroom and hallucinate it?
The soundtrack had the featureless unplaceability that now typifies all such events. It could have been recorded anywhere, by anyone, in any language. Where we once had the mid-Atlantic accent, we now have mid-Pacific pop.
Nothing stood out. Nothing stuck. Nothing aroused.
That was clearly by plan. If the world wanted to enjoy another US$300-million show, maybe it wasn’t a great idea to spend the run-up yelling at the people putting it on.
These days, the best you can hope for from an opening ceremony are small hits of absurdity. Thankfully, the people in charge lack the self-awareness required to screen those out.
How about International Olympic Committee president Tommy Bach straight-facedly telling people to “give peace a chance.”
Man, how about you give peace a chance? When was the last time you got one of your dictator pals on the phone and tried talking him down? I don’t know any dictators. Not well, at least. So it doesn’t really matter how many chances I give peace.
Or Xi Jinping, having just dropped Vlad Putin off at an eight-star hotel and slipped into something a little slinkier (a one-size-too-small parka), clapping in Taiwan and Hong Kong. What a delightful scamp he is. He gets it.
Or speaking of Russia, its choice of flagbearer – speed skater Olga Fatkulina.
Fatkulina won a silver medal at the Sochi Games in 2014. Like many Russian medalists at those Games, she was stripped of it for doping. After a few years of lawsuits, the medal was reinstated. Now she’s leading the parade.
Oh Russia. When you’re not invading your neighbours, you’re invading my heart. Once again, it arrives at an Olympics unnamed, denied its own flag and giving no ground. Russia continues to be the Games’ least likeable, more watchable participant.
Later, Bach congratulated the athletes on their character, which I suppose they inherit genetically, like the ability to jump real high.
“You the Olympic athletes will show the world how we would look if we all respect the rules,” Bach said, and we all thought of Russia and smiled.
What’s missing from of this celebration of the world is the world. The IOC and its cronies spend the whole time at one these things reminding us that the Olympics are all about the athletes.
No. They’re not. They feature the athletes, which is not the same thing.
The players in any sort of performance are interchangeable. But no great show is possible without its audience.
The Olympics are about us. How we see ourselves, how we match up against our friends and enemies, how our lives have changed in four-year increments. You, sitting at home, watching bobsleigh for the first time since the previous Winter Games, caring about what happens in bobsleigh, driving the conversation, paying the competitors’ way – you define the Olympics.
There was a small window when the people who put on an opening ceremony got that. Their goal was to delight and uplift. When people gave speeches, it felt like they were talking to the inhabitants of the real world, not the other phonies inside the Olympic beltway.
That’s over. History flipped all of us and has us down on the ground. What’s left is a tinny, repeating echo of what things used to be like back in the good ol’ days, circa the Obama presidency.
Back then, you didn’t have to feel guilty about having fun. Back then, the Olympics was a celebration of our possibilities, not a reminder of our problems.
You want to make a great opening ceremony again? Stop trying to make an impression, or sound important, or bring back the ancient art of noodle waving.
Instead, try convincing the rest of us that you volunteered to host this party because you like parties and are good at hosting them.
The Globe and Mail