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Higher, Faster, Stronger Kitsch

The Olympics' opening ceremony is less and less about what it should be: the athletes

The sheep are ready for their close-up. In what undoubtedly was a painful decision, the stunt-bike-riders were cut, and the farm was saved in Isles of Wonder, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's grandiosely titled opening ceremony for the Games of the XXX Olympiad. The grass menagerie inside London's Olympic Stadium—70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 ducks, nine geese, three cows, two goats—will apparently better represent bucolic England to the anticipated global TV audience of one billion than two-wheeled daredevils.

Some 30 minutes were excised last week from Boyle's extravaganza—the anti-director's cut—because the festivities, which will begin at 9 p.m. local time, would not have wrapped until after 12:30 a.m. A 3½-hour ceremony might have indisposed 80,000 homeward-bound spectators, even though public transportation runs until 2:30 a.m. during the Olympics, one hour later than usual. There was also some pressure from the IOC to make sure the athletes will be able to get to bed at a decent hour—the first event on Saturday, the women's 10-meter air rifle competition, starts at 8:15 a.m.

Athletes. You remember them. They used to be the centerpiece of the opening ceremony. Emphasis on the jugglers and the clowns, even the four-legged ruminant kind, long ago eclipsed the parade of nations and its implicit message of universality. Now the athletes are extras in their own show, time fillers until the host nation marches in. Then Olympians endure an hour or more of extravagance as the ceremony reduces the host country to stereotype in a showy infomercial that often veers into self-parody.

Theoretically, Olympic opening ceremonies imagine the host nation as it is and was: a mirror of its best self. Invariably, however, the abridged history lessons are pastiches crammed with high-tech stunts, sly boasting, native dress nobody would be caught dead in 364 days of the year, and nods to cliché. Boyle's take on the United Kingdom reportedly includes a cricket match, two mosh pits, picnicking families, a troupe of National Health Services nurses, British humor (although probably not Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks; the men's 20 kilometer race walk is not until Aug. 4), Paul McCartney and—rapture—rain from a fake cloud. The show, with a cast of 10,000, required about 200 rehearsals, which is modest compared to the clambake in Beijing, where director Zhang Yimou had his 15,000 cast and crew members rehearse an average of 16 hours a day. (One rehearsal lasted 51 hours.) Zhang's 2008 ceremony cost a reported $100 million, more than double the $42 million in Boyle's budget.

The opening ceremony has evolved through the quadrennials, of course, taking a flying leap with the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, a megaceremony that introduced the torch relay and included a stadium flyover. (The aircraft above Hitler's head? The Hindenburg.) The ceremony reverted to something more athlete-focused and buttoned-down after the war—the most entertaining element of the Helsinki 1952 ceremony was a German woman spontaneously running onto the stadium infield—but Moscow 1980 ushered in the modern age of pageantry by showing off the Soviet Union's world-famous ballet dancers and theme music composed by Shostakovich. In '84, Los Angeles riposted to the Red Menace with 85 grand pianos playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Isles of Wonder was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, whose five acts can be read in roughly half the time of Boyle's truncated production. Such a sprawling performance can fall victim to obvious glitches—two years ago in Vancouver, one of the posts delivering torches failed to rise from the infield—and to its own bewildering aesthetics: The Vancouver ceremony included a slam poet who reminded a global audience that Canadians "do more than sit around and say, 'Eh?'" and that "Canada is the what in what's new." Riiiight. That sudden outbreak of poetry was almost as puzzling as the avant- gardist winter ceremony in Albertville, France, two decades ago, at which each nation paraded into the stadium behind a woman encased in a bubble that stretched from neck to knee while a voice on the P.A. system recited a rhyming couplet that included the name of the country. Mercifully, Nantucket had not declared independence.

Boyle's best chance at creating a genuine Wow! moment (as opposed to a Wow, what the hell are those giant puppets supposed to be doing now? moment) involves the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. If you remember anything from the Barcelona 1992 opening, it is the Paralympic archer's flaming arrow. An old Olympic light heavyweight once known as Cassius Clay illuminated Atlanta in '96, while four years later runner Cathy Freeman and the cauldron's rising to the top of the Sydney stadium packed an emotional punch beyond the range of any gaggle of geese.

The Olympics were designed to be more than a symposium of sweat. The original Games had cultural and artistic components, but now we have one night of culture and art on steroids, if you pardon the expression. The opening spectacles have become as bloated as the Olympics themselves, which during the next two weeks will feature 26 sports and 10,500 athletes representing 204 countries—11 more than have U.N. membership. (Puerto Rico doesn't have statehood, but it gets nationhood every four years.) Even without Boyle's bikers, the opening will be too long and too late, discouraging the genuine Olympic stars, the athletes, from attending what should be their moment.

Don't discount the purchasing power of $42 million when you are in the market for higher-faster-stronger kitsch. The sheep in Boyle's ploughman's England had better stick to the script. Should they blow their lines, they may end up as the director's barnyard epitaph.


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