London Games' opening ceremony a mash-up of British history, pop culture

Posted: July 28, 2012

LONDON - The opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games answered one question definitively.

Yes, Queen Elizabeth II has listened to both the Sex Pistols and hip-hop.

If she hadn't before Friday night, filmmaker Danny Boyle's eardrum-pounding, eyeball-exhausting whirl through British history brought Her Majesty up to speed. Actually, in a bit of filmic sleight-of-hand, Boyle and actor Daniel Craig turned Her Majesty into the latest Bond girl.

Boyle's $42.5 million ceremony celebrated English contributions to the world - from iron-smelting to the creation of the World Wide Web, from Johnny Rotten to Harry Potter, from Rowan Atkinson to Monty Python to Sir Paul McCartney. In what was surely not a tweak of the United States, one segment served as a celebration of England's National Health Service.

History was made as well as celebrated. For the first time, every national delegation included at least one female athlete. Saudi Arabia, the last nation to permit women to compete, had three women among its contingent. As a reminder of how change takes time, they marched behind the men.

One sad bit of history went unmentioned. The International Olympic Committee permitted a moment of silence for "loved ones who couldn't be here," including a montage of the departed on the giant screens around the stadium. That only served to underscore the absence of any formal recognition of the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of 11 Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972.

The Israeli flag bearer, windsurfer Shahar Zubari, had a Star of David shaved into each side of his head. Zubari won a bronze medal in Beijing. He is also the nephew of Gad Tsobari, a wrestler on the 1972 Israeli team who escaped the terrorists. Zubari lifted the blue-and-white flag as he stepped onto the track and waved it vigorously. His teammates followed, smiling and waving and, like many athletes, taking video and snapshots as they marched.

On the tape-delayed NBC broadcast of the ceremonies in the United States, host Bob Costas promised to observe a moment of silence for the victims of '72.

Aside from the oversight, the ceremonies were an energetic, irreverent affair filled with remarkable and indelible images: an English pastoral scene giving way to enormous smokestacks rising from beneath the field; an enormous Lord Voldemort; the Olympic rings emerging from a forge; glowing blankets on giant beds; Atkinson's slapstick antics as Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra; the lyrics to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" projected on the upper decks of the stadium.

That would have been tough to imagine in 1977, when the Pistols were gobbing on the Royal Jubilee with their anti-anthem "God Save the Queen."

Boyle stopped short of blasting Elizabeth with that particular tune, but his show featured giant pogoing punk puppets and rows of glam-rocking Ziggy Stardusts as well as that other Queen, the Freddy Mercury-led performers of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

All of them, from projected video of the Rolling Stones to a live cameo by Dizzee Rascal, crashed the normally staid Olympic party.

Oddly, the tamest aspect of the ceremonies was the lighting of the Olympic torch.

In keeping with the theme of "Inspire a Generation," seven young British athletes took the light from Sir Steve Redgrave, the legendary rower. They touched their torches to what appeared to be flower petals in the center of the stadium. The petals lit, then rose to form a cauldron at the top.

It was a brief moment of quiet elegance, immediately followed by fireworks and Pink Floyd's "Eclipse."

Even the traditional procession of the world's athletes was livened up by loud, pulsing dance music. That had the athletes marching, even dancing, along at a quickened pace. It's almost impossible to march somberly when the stadium is vibrating to techno, trip hop, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" or the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive."

The British team entered to an enormous roar from the fans, a shower of confetti and a deafening rendition of "Heroes" by David Bowie.

The 530-member U.S. team marched into the stadium led by flag bearer Mariel Zagunis, a two-time gold medal-winning fencer. The Americans, who eventually took up up half the track, were greeted by a waving first lady Michelle Obama.

And once the athletes were assembled, things really got loud with a driving performance by Arctic Monkeys. The band performed one of their own tunes, then a cover of the Beatles classic, "Come Together."

By then, of course, the world already had.

The idea of these ceremonies is always to set a tone, to steep the Games in the local waters of the host nation. In recent Summer Games in Beijing and Athens, that meant a more reverent and traditional celebration of the history and culture of China and Greece.

Here, it was a mash-up of British history and culture, with Redcoats marching in one column while a company of Sgt. Peppers followed beneath floating Yellow Submarines.

The idea was to make the home crowd feel good about itself. And it worked right from the start, when Bradley Wiggins, who became England's first Tour de France winner earlier this month, rang an enormous bell to open the ceremony.

The ensuing celebration of youth culture and youthful athletes was capped off by a performance by the 70-year-old McCartney.

Sir Paul still has it. He had thousands of athletes and thousands more spectators swaying and singing along to "Hey Jude."

Mike Gennaro, a rower from Havertown, was among them.

"Athletes from 204 countries all singing Hey Jude," Gennaro tweeted from the crowded field. "The Olympics are absolutely unbelievable."

We're all about to find out.

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844,, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at Read his columns at


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