Wednesday 28 September 2016

How Rio is planning to strike right chord on opening night

Jim White

Published 03/08/2016 | 02:30

Workers install a set of Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park. Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Workers install a set of Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park. Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Had the Rio Olympics been staged eight years ago, nobody would have expected much of its opening ceremony. Over the years, despite ever larger budgets the event had become less a cultural showpiece and more a teeth-grindingly woeful pantomime before the athletes' parade, in which the team from Kazakhstan flourish their flag while wearing uniforms purloined from an easyJet crew.

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Sure, there were moments that stuck in the memory: the man in a jetpack landing in the Los Angeles stadium in 1984, Muhammad Ali confounding Parkinson's disease to apply a shaking torch to the Olympic cauldron in 1996, Kylie Minogue belting out a glitter ball version of Waltzing Matilda in 2000.

But the rest of what Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, had hoped would act as a showcase for the host nation's heritage had merged into a Eurodisco splurge of modern dance.

Costumes

The event reached a nadir in Athens in 2004 with choruses of stilt walkers dressed as centaurs, human tableaux forming the shape of a dove and floats filled with embarrassed young men wearing costumes that made them look like naked Greek statues.

And then came Beijing 2008. With one jaw-dropping wow of a spectacular, China blew everything that had come before out of the water. From the moment it began at eight minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month of the 80 year of the new millennium (the Chinese have a thing about the number eight) the message was clear. This was a declaration to the world that if you wanted to do business, China was the most efficient place to do it.

What struck that night in Beijing was the numbers involved. Not just the financial figures - the budget for an hour's entertainment topped $100m - but the personnel. It began with 2,008 drummers hammering out a beat in such perfect unity you suspected they might be robots. By the end, as thousands upon thousands of participants flooded the Bird's Nest arena, we were left in no doubt that this was the world's most populous country.

London in 2012 couldn't compete in terms of opulence or scale. But Britain's opening ceremony was glorious for the very fact it did not try. Starring the head of state in a blissful James Bond spoof, it was funny and self-deprecating.

The occasion did precisely what De Coubertin had wanted: it celebrated the contribution our country has made to the world. Film, technology, and most of all, music, were central. From Elgar's Enigma to My Boy Lollipop, from Parry's Jerusalem to the Arctic Monkeys' I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor, it was like tuning in to the entire back catalogue of Desert Island Discs.

Through it all we were presented with an image that was resolutely Britain.

Not the Britain of the Coldstream Guards and Downton Abbey, but the Britain of suburbia and the escapism of pop culture. The place most of us live.

Those who arrived clinging to the cynical assumption that it would all end in tears of embarrassment were sent home grinning.

Afterwards, in the lengthy post mortem, the reason for its success was widely agreed upon. It worked because it was the vision of one man: Danny Boyle. Though Boyle did not do it alone, the singularity of vision gave the event its verve and certainty.

And what a challenge it set for the Rio games. If they are wise, the Brazilians will do what London did: ignore precedent, and play to their strengths. The signs are good: like London, Rio has entrusted things to one man. Fernando Meirelles, director of City of God, the brilliant movie about Rio's favelas, has been working on his production for two years. Like Boyle, for all that time he has been in purdah, giving nothing away. All he has said is that his ceremony has a significantly lower budget than that of London, to reflect the unimportance of the show in comparison to other publicly-funded services such as sanitation and education.

He has also said it will steer clear of the most obvious cliches.

Nevertheless, it would not be fanciful to suggest Meirelles's ceremony - which will be watched by an estimated one billion television viewers - will be colourful, upbeat and very, very noisy. After all, this is the city that produces the greatest of all municipal parades. If Meirelles uses the ceremony to showcase his city's heartbeat, we could be in for one heck of a carnival. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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