London's Olympic opening ceremony may have been "for everyone," but did everyone get it? (Ezra Shaw/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, United Kingdom — Lights! Music! Chimneys! The opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics was by turns spectacular and surreal. It did a good job of stirring British hearts, but did the rest of the world have a clue what was going on?
Danny Boyle, the show’s director, crammed so many UK-centric references into his spectacle that most people watching from afar would have benefited from cultural subtitles to explain everything, from the opening scenes of maypole dancing to the rap climax of “Bonkers.”
There was an obvious subtext to this triumphant parade: Britain is great. Look at the marvellous things it has produced: cricket; mechanized industry; the National Health Service; punk and worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. That’s right, Britain invented the web. Beat that, China!
But was there a sub-subtext? Most of things celebrated in the ceremony were from Britain’s past – the industrial revolution which made Britain into a global superpower, most of the memorable music and movies it has exported. Even the NHS is a shadow of its former self these days.
It would be nice to think Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire and heroin addiction tragicomedy Trainspotting, was trying to make a political statement about how Britain, currently being ransacked by austerity measures, has only just managed to host the 2012 Games.
It certainly looked chaotic. And Boyle didn’t dwell too heavily on the picture-postcard images of Britain. The bucolic landscape of the show’s opening scenes quickly gave way to the smouldering hell of the 18th-century industrial revolution.
Smokestacks burst out of the ground, followed by sooty laborers. Meanwhile actor Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a visionary British engineer who built bridges, railways and enormous ships – intoned portentous dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Those, like these, were grim times. One scene, in which dozens of workers puddled molten iron to forge giant Olympic rings only to watch them ascend skywards, served as a useful metaphor for the Londoners who have toiled hard to pay for the Games, but can’t afford tickets.
More grit was to come. Homage was paid to the suffragettes, a 19th- and early 20th-century movement that saw women commit suicide and go on hunger strike to demand the vote, and to the Caribbean migrants of the 1950s who endured racial hostility to begin new lives in Britain.
For a moment it seemed as if we might spend the rest of the ceremony luxuriating in historic British gloom. Perhaps we’d get the powercuts of the 1970s, the confrontations of the 1980s coal miners’ strike – all soundtracked by Manchester miserablists The Smiths.
Instead we had a sudden splash of color as Boyle dipped into the psychedelic age of the 1960s before launching into a silly section in which actor Daniel Craig, reprising his role as licensed killer James Bond, teamed up with the real Queen Elizabeth II for a comic parachuting scene.
This was followed by the undisputed centerpiece of the show: a beautifully choreographed tribute to the NHS, the universal healthcare institution that has cared for Britons since 1948 and could serve as a template for the “Obamacare” reforms in the United States.
While images of beds, sick kids and medical staff in the middle of an Olympic stadium might have struck an odd note with overseas spectators, for generations of Brits delivered into the world by the NHS, this was the ceremony’s lump-in-the-throat moment.
“I bawled my eyes out,” said Helen Fearnley, a 26-year-old office worker. “It made me very proud of what we have.” Salesman Raz Khan, 37, described it as: “Flipping brilliant.”
Not everyone thought the same. Unemployed Londoner Oliver Markham, 54, said: “I know I’m going to sound like a miserable bastard, but what a waste of money. They could’ve built a new hospital instead of putting on a song-and-dance act about it.”
There were more possible metaphors at work as the show unleashed the villains of British children’s literature on the bedded youngsters, perhaps symbolizing NHS funding cutbacks set in motion by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (who was in the audience).
This was followed by a tribute to the British film industry, chiefly the Olympic-themed movie Chariots of Fire. Since Cameron’s government has cut crucial arts funding, this was perhaps another barbed reference to a golden age which no longer exists.
Boyle had fun with the soundtrack as the show charted British pop through the decades in a segment based around a classic redbrick English house that appeared to chronicle the online-obsessed culture of the country’s modern youth.
We had music by The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles and David Bowie. We also had the Sex Pistols singing “Pretty Vacant” – which the queen must have enjoyed. We had, too, the anarchic rave anthem “Firestarter” by Prodigy, which may also have raised a royal eyebrow.
That wasn’t all. Ahead of a brief cameo by an endearingly excited Berners-Lee, “grime” rapper Dizzee Rascal, who hails from nearby east London, got to sing his hit “Bonkers” with lyrics including: “All I care is about sex and violence / A heavy bass line is my kind of silence.”
This was followed by a somber remembrance of the 52 people killed in terrorist attacks on London on July 7, 2005 – the day after London was awarded the 2012 games. A poignant moment, although it did feel as if every single Briton, alive and dead, would be namechecked before the show was over.
It was all very chaotic and at times it seemed as if most of the cast was busy pulling apart or rebuilding the set. Much of it also seemed like a very British in-joke, with references to sitcoms, soaps and weather forecasts that – with the exception of Mr. Bean – will be alien to outsiders.
And then, after the athletes had paraded their national flags through the stadium and proceedings drew to a close, there was the mandatory appearance of former Beatle Paul McCartney, leading the audience through a plodding rendition of “Hey Jude.”
But the best metaphor of all was saved until almost the end, when the Olympic flame was ignited. The torch itself was created by raising more than 200 flaming copper stems until they joined aloft to form a giant crucible of fire in the center of the arena.
Just as these individual flames came together to produce a powerful Olympic symbol, so did the chaotic scenes of the opening ceremony unite into something quite splendid.
It was bit messy, overly nostalgic and extremely eccentric. Yet it was spirited, proud, funny – and very British.
On the news that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's lifted the military ban on women in combat, GlobalPost took a look at women's wartime roles around the world.
Women combat afghanistan
Female Afghan National Police cadets train at the shooting range of the Kabul Police Academy on November 14, 2012 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Kabul police academy graduates 500 male officers each year, after 4 years of training, and around 30 women after 6 months of training.
- [Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images]
Women combat australia
Australian soldiers Captain Veena (Big Red) Cochrane (R) and flight officer Christine Edey (L) prepare to board a Sea King helicopter at Henderson International Aiprort near Honiara on July 25, 2003. While Australian women can not serve in many positions qualified as "direct combat," they can can serve in combat units.
- [TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat canada
A Canadian female soldier takes part in a training exercise in July 2007 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Centre (JMRC) near the southern German town of Hohenfels. Since a 1989 tribunal order, women have become more fully integrated into the Canadian military, serving in combat and commanding large infantry units.
- [SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat china
Trainee bodyguards — most with previous military experience — listen to instructions at the Genghis Security Academy in Beijing on Jan. 17, 2013. As of 2008, around 7.5 percent of China's People's Liberation Army personnel were women, although thier work is largely limited to non-combat roles.
- [ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat colombia
Female soldiers take part in a training on May 14, 2009 in Tolemaida military base, Colombia. The first sixty-two women to become cadets ever in Colombia were taking combat training, after which they would be in a position to command troops.
- [RAFA SALAFRANCA/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat germany
Two female German soldiers from the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) at Camp Marmal in Mazar e Sharif in Afghanistan on June 30, 2008. Women have served in German combat units since a 2001 European Court of Justice ruling.
- [MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat israel 1
Israeli Army female soldier Yael Suissa (L) competes in a push-up competition with US Army sergeant Aaron Thomas Feb. 4, 2003 during a joint US-Israeli military exercise in the Negev desert in southern Israel.
- [Alberto Denkberg/Getty Images]
Women combat israel 3
An Israeli soldier from the Karakal Battalion in action during training on Dec. 14, 2010. The Karakal is a mixed-sex battalion formed in 2004, with men and women serving together in this combat unit, based in the Negev desert on the borders with Egypt and Jordan. Israeli women, like men, are drafted and can serve in combat.
- [Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]
Women combat korea
Female cadets participate in basic military training for reserve officers at military camp on Jan. 19, 2011 in Seoul, South Korea. The Ministry of National Defense in South Korea agreed two years ago to admit women into its college-based Reserve Officers' Training Program for the first time since the program began in 1963. Women can serve in combat in the South Korean military, and there have even been female combat generals.
- [Park Jin-Hee - Pool/Getty Images]
Women combat pakistan
Pakistani Air Force cadet Nadia Gul, 21, stands in front of a mural at the Pakistani Air Force Academy Oct. 6, 2005, in Risalpur, Pakistan. Gul, the top student in her class of 64 at the academy, was one of only eight female cadets in training to be fighter pilots in the Pakistani Air Force. Pakistani women are able to train and serve in combat roles.
- [John Moore/Getty Images]
Women combat uk 2
Cadets take part in the Sovereign's Parade at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst on Dec. 14, 2012 in England. The parade marks the completion of 44 weeks of training for 200 young people who will be commissioned into the British Army and the armies of 13 overseas countries. Senior Under Officer Sarah Hunter-Choat became the fourth woman in the Royal Military Academy's history to receive the prestigious Sword of Honour which is awarded to the best Officer Cadet on the course. British women have served in combat roles at various points in British history, including World War II and the Gulf War.
- [Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]
Women combat us 1
Members of the US Naval Academy Freshman class low crawl under obstacles at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland on May 17, 2005.
- [Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
Women combat us 2
A US woman soldier of the 3rd Infantry Division practices life-saving skills during a combat lifesaver course in Camp Taji, northwest of Baghdad, Aug. 13 2005.
- [LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat us 3
A US soldier from the 2nd Battallion 12th Field Artillery Regiment, 4-2 SBCT, searches an Iraqi woman on Feb. 25, 2008, as she arrives at an improvished clinic set up by the US military 20 kms northeast of Baghdad.
- [PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat us 4
Army First Lt. Alisha Vanghn (L) is greeted by her friend First Lt. Shandale Hall (R) during a welcome home ceremony for 330 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division on Jan. 7, 2006 at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Hall and Vaughn served together in Iraq, but returned home a month apart.
- [Stephen Morton/Getty Images]
Women combat us 5
Two US Army soldiers, Private Miranda Nichols (L), 18, from Georgia, and Private First Class Leysha Williamson (R), 27, from Texas, man a foxhole during a dawn defensive alert south of Baghdad on March 30, 2003.
- [ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat us 6
A US soldier stands amid Shiite Muslim youths during a patrol in September 2003 in Sadr City, home to the largest Shiite community in Baghdad.
- [RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images]
Women combat us 7
US Army chaplain Cpt. Julie Rowan comforts the mother of a woman who died of burn wounds on Sept. 10, 2005, at the combat hospital at Baghram Air Field, Afghanistan.
- [John Moore/Getty Images]
Women combat us 8
A ground crew member sits in the co-pilot's seat of a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft as she helps conduct a maintenance check during Operation Desert Shield.
- [USAF/Getty Images]
Women combat us 9
A US Military Academy graduate smiles after receiving her diploma during commencement exercises on May 31, 2003, in West Point, New York.
- [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]
Women combat us 10
Female Marine Corps recruit Ginger Callahan, 20, of New York fires on the rifle range at the United States Marine Corps recruit depot on June 21, 2004 in Parris Island, South Carolina.
- [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Women combat us 11
Former Iraqi War POW Shoshana Johnson (R) listens as the church choir sing a song to honor her at the First United Christian Church on June 6, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. Shoshana, the first black female POW, was captured and shot in the ankles during the US invasion of Iraq on March 23 near Nasiriyah along with six other US Army personnel from the El Paso-based 507th Maintenance Company.
- [David McNew/Getty Images]