The Olympic extravaganza

by Hugh Cortazzi

London has Olympics mania. The newspapers are devoting more than half their pages to the games while the airwaves are dominated at all hours by coverage of Olympic events. Even cynical oldies can’t avoid catching some of the fever.

The Brits were determined that no one should be able to say that the London games were a letdown after the 2008 games in Beijing. A huge effort was put into the opening ceremony on July 27, which was planned and directed by Danny Boyle.

The show managed to pack in many favorite British themes — from farming in “this green and pleasant land” through the Industrial Revolution to modern Britain, its pop culture and the National Health Service (NHS). With nurses and children dancing and pirouetting, hundreds of Mary Poppinses descended from the sky. Technically it was all “Wow!” even if some of the electronics came from China.

The Brits pride themselves on their sense of humor. Sir Simon Rattle, the famous conductor, conducted the theme music to the film “Chariots of Fire,” while comic actor Mr. Bean hammed it up.

The most amusing episode was probably that in which the queen played the lead role. A recorded film sequence showed James Bond (“Agent 007″) calling by taxi to collect Her Majesty from Buckingham Palace for the opening ceremony. The queen and her favorite corgis greet Bond and they go out together to the waiting helicopter. The next scene shows the helicopter arriving at the Olympic Park and the queen (or rather an actor dressed as the queen) descending from the helicopter by parachute. This was followed by the arrival at the ceremony of the queen herself accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh. The queen clearly enjoyed featuring in a film where she acted the role of herself.

A highlight of the ceremony was the ceremonial carrying of the Olympic flag by individuals known for their devotion to the causes of peace, human rights and the environment. One of these was Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary general. Another was Daniel Barenboim, who was in London with his East-West Divan Orchestra made up of Israelis, Arabs and Spaniards for a cycle of Beethoven symphonies. A third was a Brazilian green activist (much to the alleged chagrin of the Brazilian president).

The Olympic flame, which had toured all over Britain in past weeks, arrived in spectacular fashion and the caldron was lit to a fanfare of fireworks. The ceremony ended about 1 a.m. with a final song from Sir Paul McCartney, a surviving Beatle.

The worldwide audience is said to have broken records, and not even “moaning minnies” have been able to gainsay the success of the opening. One Conservative Party member of Parliament, however, apparently found it all “too leftwing,” and Americans might have been shocked by the ceremonial role played by the NHS, which they abhor as socialist medicine.

Hiccups that are probably inevitable with such a large-scale event, have not justified Mitt Romney’s condescending doubts about the British ability to make a success of the Olympics. The Brits are quite ready to be sharply critical of examples of British mismanagement, but did not take at all kindly to Romney’s gaffe. London, as was pointed out to him, is not Salt Lake City. He had to compete with Michelle Obama, who was also in town and has won British hearts by her natural and friendly charm.

At one point it looked as though there might be problems over security. G4S, the company that had won the contract to provide trained security personnel, had to admit shortly before the games were due to open that they had failed to recruit anything like the number required. So the armed services were called in to help. Security duties at the games are at least more fun than sweating it out in Afghanistan.

Other minor hiccups that have raised eyebrows and rueful smiles, but have not threatened the games, have included an occasion in Manchester when the South Korean flag was shown by mistake when the North Korean Women’s football team were about to play. Red faces and quick apologies saved the day.

The police apparently lost the keys to Wembley football stadium and the locks had to be changed at considerable expense.

The biggest complaint has been against the Olympic Sports Federations and official sponsors, who in the first few days left empty many of the front seats allocated to them. Many Brits, who had tried hard without success to buy tickets, were incensed.

There has also been irritation over the special lanes made to allow officials and teams to speed through London’s traffic jams to Olympic venues.

“Who do they think they are?” asked many Brits who had been urged to avoid driving or traveling in central London during the games. Many firms and government offices had to make arrangements for staff to work from home during the games.

Brits who have remained in London have had one of the coolest and wettest summers on record. They are determined to enjoy themselves and the excitement is palpable. It remains to be seen whether “Team GB” will carry off as many medals as they did in Beijing. A goodly haul might help to spur competitors in the future.

The biggest questions are over the long-term impact. Will the huge cost be justified by the regeneration of a rundown part of London? Will the new investment attracted to Britain and the money spent at the games provide the impetus needed to push the economy out of recession?

Olympic authorities need to consider whether the competition among host countries to put on ever more expensive extravaganzas is sensible and conducive to the furtherance of the Olympic spirit. Might it not be wise to put a limit on the amount that the host country spends on organizing the games’ ceremonies?

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.