It might be kitsch, it might be a touch formulaic, but the biggest global TV audience of the Olympic games is not for the men's 100m or indeed any sporting event, but for the opening ceremony. Governments and organizers know this and, in the case of the Chinese politburo, were happy to sanction a budget of $150 million for just under four hours of action; a strange amalgam of global ritual, TV Spectacular, Broadway musical, firework display on steroids and post-modern circus.
That said, it is not a complete free-for-all, there is a basic structure to the occasion. Rather like synchronized swimming and ice dance, the Olympic opening ceremony has a free artistic program and set of compulsory figures that the IOC insists upon. The former is the host's chance to send a message to the world. The compulsories feature all our favorite Olympic icons--flags, oaths, anthems and flames.
The former is the host's chance to send a message to the world. The compulsories feature all our favorite Olympic icons -- flags, oaths, anthems and flames.
The Artistic Program
Once upon a time this was a matter of a few military bands and a bit of country dancing before the athletes shuffled off to warm up. However, in an era of global TV coverage, this will not do, and the show is now choreographed down to the last detail--even the final countdown.
Everyone around London 2012 has insisted it isn't possible to top Beijing or compete with it in scale. However, in an interesting break with protocol, Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire and artistic director of the London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies, has given us a glimpse of what is to come. It looks intriguing: a stadium-size recreation of the British countryside, the mosh pits of the Glastonbury festival, sheep and ducks, rain clouds and the National Health Service.
That said once the countdown is done it is anyone's guess what's coming next. Moscow 1980 began with a very Russian-looking bunch of Greeks walking into the stadium with sacred flames. Los Angeles 1984 started with a spaceman and a jet pack, Seoul 1988 commenced on a giant river barge ten miles away from the stadium. Sydney 2000 had a formation horse troupe.
The Compulsory Program: I Love a Parade
The mime and dance is done and it's time for the athletes; each team is led out by a standard bearer, plus an athlete carrying the national flag. The Greeks always open proceedings and the hosts bring up the rear. Apart from that, it's teams in alphabetical order, once around the track and line up in the middle. With over 200 teams and many thousands of athletes this may take some time. Look out for newly formed states or newly independent micro-nations that are making their debut.
The speeches are presumably scheduled here to allow everyone a trip to the toilet and time for a quick cup of tea. Expect anodyne offerings from Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, Lord Coe of the London organizing committee and the declaration that the games are open from Her Majesty.
Anthems and Flags
The order varies a little but coming up is the arrival of the Olympic Flag--usually carried by past Olympians in white jump suits--and the playing of the Olympic anthem. This is an instantly forgettable choral number written for the 1896 games in Athens. Some ceremonies do it in the original Greek. In an attempt to deal with the minefield that is linguistic politics in Catalonia, Barcelona had verses in Catalan, French and Spanish. The organizers at Munich 1972 thought a German version too complex so they went with an instrumental instead.
Finally the Olympic torch will appear and the Olympic cauldron will be lit for the duration of the games. Barcelona did it with a flaming arrow shot through the air, Athens had a gigantic cigarette lighter on a pivot and Beijing had the final torch bearer run round the roof of the Bird's Nest stadium.
Bring on the birds
It was once standard form for doves of peace to be released prior to the lighting of the Olympic flame. However, in Seoul in 1988, many of the birds came to rest on the rim of the cauldron and were incinerated by the Olympic flame. Doves are now released afterwards and in Beijing they were replaced by symbolic fireworks.
No Cheating, Promise!
Next up are the athlete's and official's oaths, taken by one person on behalf of all the others, where they promise to be jolly good sports and not take drugs. At Los Angeles in 1984, hurdler Edwin Moses stalled midway through the oath and was forced to repeat the same sentence three times before finally getting back on track.
Today's autocue, sadly, make a repeat unlikely.
This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.