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China aims for spectacular opening

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Mihir Bose | 07:36 UK time, Friday, 8 August 2008

Opening ceremonies are windows on the soul of the nation hosting the Olympics.

It would be easy to dismiss them as over-hyped events and those of us who cover sports are not immune to hype.

A victory in sports, even a lucky one, can be presented as a world changing triumph, a defeat is often a tragedy. But opening ceremonies are different.

For a start they have little to do with the sports that will follow.

They are more like the gathering of the Olympic sporting clan, summoned to hear the call for the Games, before the participants disperse to various venues to display their sporting prowess.

Many of the athletes cannot even be at the opening ceremony because they are too busy preparing for their events.

Indeed, for almost a week after the opening ceremony, the main stadium is not used until the athletics begin.

It is interesting to observe that other sports do not have an opening ceremony.

Football has tried an Olympic-style opening spectacular. The Germans were very keen on one for the 2006 World Cup, even going so far as to announce an opening ceremony in Berlin before the first match of the tournament in Munich.

But in the end it did not work and the Berlin event was cancelled.


The recently concluded Euro 2008 did not even bother with an opening ceremony and decided to concentrate on the football.

But at the Olympics, the opening ceremony is a great chance for the host nation to present a narrative of the country.

In a sense it is the modern equivalent of story telling, the host nation telling its story, or the bits it wants to tell, in front of billions.

In modern times opening ceremonies have also been used by countries not only to talk to the world but also to its own people.

In Atlanta, for instance, the flame was lit by Muhammad Ali.

His struggle with Parkinson's was very evident and it was sad to see this man, one of the most iconic figures in sport, looking so frail.

Many thought, and this view was widely expressed in Britain then, that he should not have been subjected to this ordeal.

But a Games being held in the south, with its history of treatment of the American blacks, clearly needed Ali to light the flame and signify how the region had moved on.

An even more dramatic statement was made at the Sydney opening ceremony in 2000.

This was truly an attempt to present a narrative of the Australian nation which in some ways would heal the wounds inflicted on the Aboriginals and recognise they were the original inhabitants of the land.

I recall the debate in Australia as to who would light the flame, with some suggesting it would be Donald Bradman. But when Cathy Freeman ran into the stadium, it seemed the most obvious choice.

This was a country wanting to finally bury its white Australia past.

Echoes of this were felt the night Freeman won her gold. On that rainy night in Sydney, the Australian nation seemed to hold its collective breath - desperately wanting Freeman to win but worried she might not.

When she did the relief that was felt was palpable and made sense even to those of us who were visitors to the country.

A similar attempt to knit together a narrative was attempted by Salt Lake City, the convoluted history of the United States starting with the native Americans and going through to the various immigrant groups that make up the country.

I felt Salt Lake was not quite as successful as Sydney in presenting a coherent tale of the country.

With these Games, China is trying to make its own statement about its powerful and changing role on the world stage, but at the same time it has a complicated history, parts of which it prefers not to promote. And the images it has chosen to paint that picture will resonate far beyond Friday's opening ceremony.

China hopes it will help create fans of the country not only among those of watching in the stadium, but billions round the world.

And while the sports that follow may be shine more brightly, the opening ceremony will define the Games.

If it works then it will go a long way to marking the Beijing Games as a success.

Successful football managers often say while they like to begin well, what matters is how their teams finish. Sir Alex Ferguson is a master of that art.

In the Olympics, a good beginning is more important. Get it wrong and then the Games struggle to recover, China has done all it can to make sure it gets off to the right start.


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  • 1. At 10:20am on 08 Aug 2008, macaonghus wrote:

    Good post. I've always found the opening ceremonies boring and pointless, but now that you've explained why they are important, I will be looking forward to this one.

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  • 2. At 10:34am on 08 Aug 2008, coolbumbler wrote:

    IT is an excellent article.
    Shame about the spelling!
    "I felt Salt Lake was not quit as successful". This kind of error really is not acceptable from the BBC!

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  • 3. At 10:41am on 08 Aug 2008, collie21 wrote:

    I don't agree at all with your sentiment on Ali. I think many saw it as another triumph for a still great man. Of course we were touched by his condition, but to say it was an ordeal for him is far wrong. Look at his eyes, look at that triumph on his face. Ali was always a showman and I am sure he would have danced around shadow boxing had his body allowed him. For me I will never forget being afraid for him as his hand trembled. But I have no sense and never had that it was something distasteful. Perhaps those afraid of looking the truth of life in the eye were upset by something not apparently pure unblemished.

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  • 4. At 10:45am on 08 Aug 2008, Mark Bentley wrote:

    An interesting post but I'm afarid I disagree with elaborate opening ceromonies.

    The problem is that politics is not far beneath the surface of these occasions. Witness how Gordon Brown is being criticised for not attending. In China's case presenting a narrative of their country to the world is bound to have a political under current.

    I would prefer to see a purely sporting ocasion. By all means parade the national teams, take the Olympic oath and light the flame but please keep the politicians away from it. I hope that at London 2012 we try to break the cycle of these ever more ambitious junkets.

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  • 5. At 10:51am on 08 Aug 2008, James Autar wrote:

    Where was Mihir Bose when the Opening Ceremony of Euro 2008 took place? He says there was no Opening Ceremony, so what was I watching on TV then when we had the make believe skiers skimming across the stadium and the cut out mountains?

    Really it is such a waste of money the BBC sending people to the Olympics just to write 'blogs' like this. No wonder people complain about how much money the BBC spends needlessly.
    Are the BBC aware that the Olympics have already started with mens and womens football games being played and world class players like Lionel Messi in action. Other channels are showing the whole 90' and highlights but the BBC seem to be ignoring the action, presumably because the Olympics do not officially open until Friday. Typical.

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  • 6. At 11:17am on 08 Aug 2008, Tramp wrote:

    Football tournaments do have opening ceremonies, including Euro 2008, as even a quick search on youtube would reveal. They're usually fairly laughable though - anyone remember St George and the Dragon at Euro96?

    But as someone who saw Lionel Messi's goal yesterday on BBC interactive I can hardly agree that the BBC is ignoring the action. Press the red button man!

    Oh and the BBC opening titles and music are the best ever for any sporting event ever (narrowly beating Spain82 and Italia90)

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  • 7. At 11:25am on 08 Aug 2008, James Autar wrote:

    Red button - what red button? I'm afraid we cannot afford to run to TV's of that standard.
    I'm talking about a proper programme on BBC 1 or BBC 2 covering the opening football games?

    Opening Ceremony Euro 2008: I distinctly recall football commentator Alan Green saying it was the worst opening ceremony at a Euro championships that he had seen.

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  • 8. At 11:44am on 08 Aug 2008, Tramp wrote:

    Given how many different sports are on at the Olympics it is hardly surprising that the footy isn't going to be on BBC1. But those without the red button can watch it live online too - provided you have internet access (wild guess, but i reckon you do).

    As a fan of terrible opening ceremonies,
    I just hope the one in London 2012 is even more useless than this:

    This is the standard we should be aiming for:

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  • 9. At 12:49pm on 08 Aug 2008, NedMerril wrote:

    The opening cermeony is as much an intergral part of the Cultural Olympiad, as it is a celebration of the games starting. Each host nation must have a well-defined cultural programme that helps to spread the Olympic values beyond just sport in the host nation, and celebrate the diversity of cultures, people and languages across the globe.

    It seems incumbent on the Olympic hosts now to improve on all previous Olympics and make there own mark in history. The scale and imagination applied to the opening ceremony is not left untouched by this need, but is it sustainable? Should the IOC put a limit on the budget spent on the opening ceremony to give future hosts a chance, and use innovation and imagination in opening cermeonies instead of throwing money at the problem?

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  • 10. At 12:58pm on 08 Aug 2008, Al wrote:

    I would disagree with the first line, opening ceremonies are not a window to the soul of the host nation, rather they are a window to the soul of some overpaid theatre director and a bunch of lame choreographers. Fabulous insight again from the BBC's chief sport editor. Go Mihir!

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  • 11. At 1:13pm on 08 Aug 2008, bridlington bob wrote:

    "I would disagree with the first line, opening ceremonies are not a window to the soul of the host nation, rather they are a window to the soul of some overpaid theatre director and a bunch of lame choreographers. Fabulous insight again from the BBC's chief sport editor. Go Mihir!"

    Steady on .........

    Mihir Bose is probably on holiday in China, and paying for his travel and accommodation out of his own pocket.

    No ?????

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  • 12. At 1:18pm on 08 Aug 2008, BLOWERS4PM wrote:

    Have you noticed how they are starting the commentary in French first then English? A subtle but highly effective move against Bush and Brown; a feather in the cap for Sarkozy.

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  • 13. At 1:44pm on 08 Aug 2008, GardenSecretary wrote:

    The ceremony is just 45 minutes old, and is moving and tremendously impressive. I desperately need a Hazel Irvine mute button though. Please make her be quiet.

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  • 14. At 2:01pm on 08 Aug 2008, coolbumbler wrote:

    Totally agree about the Hazel Irvine mute button. How much does she pay the BBC to work for them?

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  • 15. At 5:49pm on 08 Aug 2008, magnificentpolarbear wrote:

    I turned over from BBC1 to Freeview 301 after TEN minutes to get away from the constant wittering from the THREE commentators none of whom said anything particularly important.

    The only failing was that the 301 feed initially had poor sound quality and even had the commentary on at one point.

    I really do expect better from the BBC on this technio stuff. They did the same to the 2006 Commonwealth Games ceremony too.

    Why was it felt 3 people were necessary to blab over an impressive event that to be honest needed very little explanation. Onc would have been enough (Whatever happned to Barry Davies who used to do an excellent job)

    Re #12 - French happens to be an official Olympic Language and its usually been done French-English-Local language order so there is no anti Bush/Blair/Brown sentiment

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  • 16. At 10:16pm on 08 Aug 2008, devonbrit wrote:

    Does anyone really believe the IOC would award the games to a country not prepared to create a spectacular occasion.I don't think so.
    The modern day games' size,the world wide coverage,the vast facilities created,the number of countries taking part,the commercial interests partly funding the games,the attendance of world leaders and the professionalism of the competitors effectively demands it and so it would be illogical to commence on a downbeat note.
    These are the drivers behind the presentation and the host country is going to do its damnest to use the opportunity it has been given to show the world the apparent strength of the state and it's culture.For China's leaders ,and almost certainly for the Chinese people ,it is even more important from their viewpoint that they convey this message due to their isolationist history and their recent emergence as a major power in the world.
    But as for Mihir Bose's comments about opening ceremonies being windows on the souls of the host nation well very poetic but i'm sorry i don't buy that.Take Muhammad Ali perhaps the most famous man in the world - an obvious choice to light the flame notwithstanding any symbolism.And as for Cathy Freeman well she was Australia's best hope for athletics gold.Finally on this point i didn't see in the opening ceremony any symbolism or contrition for injustices inflicted by China.
    After Beijing the circus in four years time will move to London.No doubt it will be mandatory for us to at least equal the Chinese spectacular.That is the want of the modern games ,like it or not we are stuck with it.

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  • 17. At 10:33pm on 08 Aug 2008, FSHEPHERD wrote:

    I do not believe the BOC should aspire to emulate the opening ceremony of a centralised totalitarian dictatorship in any way. I was disappointed to hear, in the News at Ten bulletin of 08/08/08, the comments of Mihir Bose, who has been in my view a much respected and excellent addition to the BBC in recent times. To suggest the London opening ceremony should try to compete with this command economy compulsion is unfortunate. We are relaxed, wry, modest, open, democratic...etc.

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  • 18. At 00:09am on 09 Aug 2008, ZappasOrg wrote:

    "Athletes, these Games were created for you by our founder, Pierre de Coubertin" said Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, during his speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

    Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee but the Baron did not "create" the Olympic Games in modern times or in ancient times.

    Does Mr Rogge seriously believe that Baron Pierre de Coubertin "created" the Olympic Games?

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  • 19. At 07:54am on 09 Aug 2008, bridlington bob wrote:

    I turned on BBC1 this morning hoping to watch some Sport ..........but acres of idle studio chatter.

    Are only those people with interactive buttons able to watch the actual Sport ?

    Where is the 'mute the presenters' button ?

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  • 20. At 1:55pm on 09 Aug 2008, Martin Gough - BBC Sport wrote:

    Thanks for your comments. Mihir Bose has just emailed with his response:

    Regarding the comments of some that football tournaments like the Euros and World Cup have opening ceremonies, the fact is they do not. An Olympic opening ceremony is a stand-alone event. It is not followed by any sporting activity.

    A football opening ceremony is immediately followed by the opening match of the tournament concerned. I have never known anybody going to the opening match of a football tournament to see the opening ceremony. But in the Olympics tickets for opening, and even the closing ceremonies are more highly valued than for any of the Olympic sports, even the 100 metres final.

    Yes, Euro 2008 did have a ceremony before the opening match but so did other football tournaments like the 2002 World Cup, indeed you could say so does the FA Cup final with its community singing. But they cannot be described as opening ceremonies to be compared with those at the Olympic Games.

    As regards the comment that the use of French in the Olympics is meant as a snub to George Bush, French and English are the two official languages of the Olympics with French having precedence over English in honour of the founder of modern Olympics Baron Coubertin.

    At IOC headquarters in Lausanne the IOC name is spelt out in French not English, and in all IOC publications, like for instance the IOC Directory, French comes before English. So the use of French in the Olympics has nothing to do with any supposed attack on Bush.

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  • 21. At 12:59pm on 10 Aug 2008, dennisjunior1 wrote:


    Thanks for the blog, i was unable to watch this year's Olympic Opening Ceremony.

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  • 22. At 1:36pm on 10 Aug 2008, jmc009dave wrote:

    what i want to know is why out of 29 sports involved in the Olympics only 1 (fencing) recieves no TV coverage on the BBC?

    and yet we get virtually the whole 3 hours of the bike road races, we get the same boxing matches repeated twice in one morning, and a host of other such things.

    can the BBC not find even 10 minutes out of a 4 or 5 hour show even just to show a few highlights of this sport?

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  • 23. At 09:33am on 11 Aug 2008, superBuchanrules wrote:

    What an appropriate analogy. 'Opening cermenonies have little to do with the sport that follows'.

    Rather like your blogs/reporting

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  • 24. At 12:39pm on 12 Aug 2008, Josh wrote:

    The World Cup 2006 in Germany did have an opening ceremony - I know cos I was there!

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