Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympic ceremony a grand vehicle of symbolism

It's the most widely-watched vehicle of symbolic representation in the world, the Olympics opening ceremony, displacing the global media for one day every four years as the primary vehicle for such progressive ideas as diversity, fairness and aspiration.

The symbolism saturates even the walk-through of the athletes, as TV commentators make remarks on each team entering the arena, focusing especially on the flag-bearers at the front of each procession. One prominent moment of symbolic meaning for me was seeing the Chinese athletes walk into the stadium, some of them carrying both the Chinese and the British flags. I was in Shanghai in 1997 for the handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong, which was another moment of symbolism that had global significance. Surely, I thought this morning as I watched these athletes stroll forward in their colourful clothes, the IOC's head honchos had kept such drama in mind when they selected Beijing for 2008 and London for 2012. East and West participate in a moment of global reconciliation and move forward past the final remnant of the colonial era, an era in which Great Britian participated more completely than most European countries. As those athletes walked down the track they walked past those same remnants and into a brighter future.

For the TV presenters as for Jacques Rogge, the IOC chairman, participation this year by women in the Olympics holds particular relevance. Rogge said that all participating teams had at least one female member. And the TV commentators made special note of the women in the Saudi Arabian team. Then, at the finale with Paul McCartney doing his schtick in the form of a spirited rendition of Hey Jude, the 1968 classic, he got the women in the stadium to sing separately to the men, the "Na na na nanananaaaa, hey Jude!" chorus that makes this song of struggle and hope so instantly recognisable throughout the world. Hearing the bass tones of the men, and then the contralto tones of the women, was a moment of intense symbolic meaning for anyone who was watching their TV this morning.

British contributions to the global musical vernacular were multiple, of course. When the British team finally entered the arena to do their walk-through we heard David Bowie's Heroes start up, and saw billions of pieces of shredded paper waft down from a passing helicopter, each representing one person living in the world. Later, we would get to hear part of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon amplified to accommodate the size of the arena and the thousands of spectators and participants it held on the night in London. All three of these songs are emblems of my youth, all three markers in my development from child to man, all three instantly recognisable to people familiar with the musical vernacular of the 20th Century. The songs are very suitable components of the opening ceremony as they serve not only to unite people with ease and enthusiasm around the world but to point to Britain's unique contribution to world culture.

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