There’s nothing like it on earth – an event involving over 200 countries from across the world, featuring thousands of the most skilled humans competing against each other, and encapsulating the whole range of human emotion across a fortnight.
While the postponed Tokyo Olympics are not without their controversy in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with many questions being raised on whether they should be going ahead, we can all agree that the Olympics are a momentous occasion for both the athletes and fans but also the home country chosen to host.
The Olympics offer the host nation a unique opportunity to have the world’s eyes focused on them for a historic two weeks and what better way to kick things off then with the Opening Ceremony. Cynics may misconstrue the event as an expensive advertisement slot designed to boost tourism, while those of a more open-minded nature will recognise the event as the celebration of culture, traditions and legacy it is.
Either way, the Opening Ceremony is typically a grand, unique spectacle full of fanfare showcasing incredible feats of entertainment, art and creativity unlike any other show on the planet.
In the heydays of London 2012, we saw the whimsical masterpiece of work created by award-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle in a ceremony that so wholly encapsulated Britishness, and that includes the humour as we saw Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, showcase her acting chops in a James Bond skydiving skit.
From NHS tributes and cheeky Eastenders references, to Mr Bean teaming up with Chariots of Fire and dancing to classic 80s punk rock, Boyle’s Opening Ceremony wasn’t trying to compete with the jaw-dropping majestic display witnessed at Beijing’s 2008 ceremony.
Instead it was a nod to British culture and self-deprecating humour in all its eccentric glory, despite the risk that certain niche pop culture moments would be unfamiliar for a global audience. The Washington Post labelled it as ‘the rock-and-roll Olympics’ with Chinese media praising the ‘human side’ of the ceremony and Russian journalists using the term ‘elegantly chaotic’.
Rio 2016 took another turn in a ceremony which, while embodying the spirit of Carnival the city is known for, had a serious message focused on the environment and was pared down in comparison to past events in the theme of gambiarra, the Brazilian expression ‘to make do’, at a time of a heated political climate.
This was evident throughout the ceremony as it celebrated Brazil’s rich musical heritage, while delivering a warning to the world on climate change and how the Olympics could play a part in addressing this issue of the modern world – athletes were given seedlings to plant in a new forest and the Olympic rings were formed from trees.
Five years later for Tokyo, the organisers faced plenty of challenges in the build-up, not least the obvious limitations in place due to COVID-19. Getting the emotional tone right for Tokyo 2020 in which a world’s been traumatised by a pandemic and the host nation faces criticism about the event was always going to be a tricky task and the organisers did well to deliver an elegant and innovative (albeit fairly safe) ceremony that paid tribute to Japan’s cultural history whilst reflecting on the shockwaves wrought by the pandemic.
From orchestral renditions of video game music, to drones replicating the globe, to the more poignant and sombre moments including Japan’s national anthem, the Opening Ceremony toed a careful line as it embraced the universality of sport and unity of the globe in troubling times. There was particular praise for the Olympic rings – created from trees planted commemoratively from seeds brought by athletes the last time Tokyo held the Olympics in 1964.
It’s safe to say that the Opening Ceremony has huge cultural significance thanks to its position on the global stage and massive global audience – London 2012 saw a staggering 900 million viewers tune in during the Opening Ceremony. Once the sport gets underway, the host nation takes a backseat so the Opening Ceremony is really its main chance to demonstrate the attributes and stories it wants to convey. In Beijing, China showcased its growing geopolitcal power, in London, a chaotically entertaining ceremony transformed the nation’s mood, and then in Rio, the environmental message took centre stage.
This legacy also continues on for years afterwards – in the UK, we saw the generational impact of the Games under the ‘Get Inspired’ banner, and now in Tokyo we see the organisers carrying on Brazil’s mission of a sustainable Olympics. It’s hard to imagine what state the world will be in when it comes to Paris 2024, but as Tokyo has demonstrated the Opening Ceremony still has a big part to play and its cultural impact can’t be understated in what it highlights to people around the world.