Kaleidoscopic pageant sets London Games rolling
The London Olympics burst into life on Friday with a humour-filled opening ceremony watched by 80,000 spectators and more than one billion TV viewers. India at play todayindia Updated: Jul 28, 2012 14:01 IST
The queen and James Bond gave the London Olympics a royal entrance like no other on Friday in an opening ceremony that rolled to the rock of the Beatles, the Stones and The Who.
And the creative genius of Danny Boyle spliced it all together. Brilliant. Cheeky, too.
The highlight of the Oscar-winning director's $42 million show was pure movie magic, using trickery to make it seem that Britain's beloved 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II had parachuted into the stadium with the nation's most famous spy.
A short film showed Daniel Craig as 007 driving to Buckingham Palace in a black London cab and, pursued by the royal corgis, meeting the queen, who played herself.
"Good evening, Mr Bond," she said.
They were shown flying in a helicopter over London landmarks and a waving statue of Winston Churchill - the queen in a salmon-colored dress, Bond dashing as ever in a black tuxedo - before leaping into the inky night over Olympic Park.
At the same moment, real skydivers appeared as the stadium throbbed to the James Bond theme. And moments after that, the monarch appeared in person, accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip.
Organizers said it was thought to be the first time she has acted on film.
"The queen made herself more accessible than ever before," Boyle said.
In the stadium, Elizabeth stood solemnly while a children's choir serenaded her with "God Save the Queen," and members of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force raised the Union Jack.
Boyle sprang another giant surprise and picked seven teenage athletes for the supreme honor of igniting the Olympic cauldron. Together, they touched flaming torches to trumpetlike tubes that spread into a ring of fire.
The flames rose and joined elegantly together to form the cauldron. Fireworks erupted over the stadium to music from Pink Floyd. And with a singalong of "Hey Jude," Beatle Paul McCartney closed a show that ran 45 minutes beyond its scheduled three hours.
Organizers said the cauldron would be moved on Sunday night to the corner of the stadium where a giant bell tolled during the show.
Boyle turned the stadium into a giant juke box, with a nonstop rock and pop homage to cool Britannia that ensured the show never caught its breath.
The high-adrenaline soundtrack veered from classical to irreverent. Boyle daringly included the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" and a snippet of its version of "God Save the Queen" - an anti-establishment punk anthem once banned by the BBC.
The encyclopedic review of modern British music continued with a 1918 Broadway standard adopted by the West Ham football team, the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and Bohemian Rhapsody, by still another Queen, and other tracks too numerous to mention, but not to dance to.
The evening started with fighter jets streaming red, white and blue smoke and roaring over the stadium, packed with a buzzing crowd of 60,000 people, at 8:12 pm - or 20:12 in the 24-hour time observed by Britons.
Boyle, one of Britain's most successful filmmakers, who directed Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, had a ball with his favored medium, mixing filmed passages with live action in the stadium to hypnotic effect, with 15,000 volunteers taking part in the show.
Actor Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean provided laughs, shown dreaming that he was appearing in Chariots of Fire, the inspiring story of a Scotsman and an Englishman at the 1924 Paris Games.
There was a high-speed flyover of the Thames, the river that winds like a vein through London and was the gateway for the city's rise over the centuries as a great global hub of trade and industry.
Headlong rushes of movie images took spectators on wondrous, heart-racing voyages through everything British: a cricket match, the London Tube and the roaring, abundant seas that buffet and protect this island nation.
Opening the ceremony, children popped balloons with each number from 10 to 1, leading a countdown that climaxed with Bradley Wiggins, the newly crowned Tour de France champion.
Wearing his yellow winner's jersey, Wiggins rang a 23-ton Olympic Bell from the same London foundry that made Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. Its thunderous chime was a nod to the British tradition of pealing bells to celebrate the end of war and the crowning of kings and queens, and now for the opening of a 17-day festival of sports - London's record third as host.
The show then shifted to a portrayal of idyllic rural Britain - a place of meadows, farms, sport on village greens, picnics and Winnie-the-Pooh, AA Milne's bear who has delighted generations of British children tucked warmly in bed.
But that "green and pleasant land," to quote poet William Blake, then took a darker, grittier turn.
The set was literally torn asunder, the hedgerows and farm fences carried away, as Boyle shifted to the industrial transformation that revolutionized Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, the foundation for an empire that reshaped world history. Belching chimneys rose where only moments earlier sheep had trod.
The Industrial Revolution also produced terrifying weapons, and Boyle built a moment of hush into his show to honor those killed in war.
"This is not specific to a country. This is across all countries, and the fallen from all countries are celebrated and remembered," he explained to reporters ahead of the ceremony.
"Because, obviously, one of the penalties of this incredible force of change that happened in a hundred years was the industrialization of war, and the fallen," he said. "You know, millions fell."
Olympic organizers separately rejected calls for a moment of silence for 11 Israeli athletes and coaches slain by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The 17-day festival of sports excellence finally commenced with a three-hour long opening ceremony directed by Danny Boyle, who made a name for himself with the Oscar-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire" notwithstanding the criticism that he had exploited Mumbai's slums.
3-hr extravaganza at Olympic Park
The eagerly awaited opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games kicked off on Friday with a mass countdown and the chime of a giant bell, ushering in an eccentric and exuberant celebration of British history, art and culture.
Some 60,000 spectators crowded into the state-of-the-art arena at the Olympic Park, built in a previously run-down area of the city's East End, and over a billion more people tuned in around the world for the three-hour extravaganza.
The parade of nations featured most of the roughly 10,500 athletes - some planned to stay away to save their strength for competition - marching behind the flags of the 204 nations taking part.
Greece had the lead, as the spiritual home of the games, and Team Great Britain was last, as host. Prince William and his wife, Kate, joined in thunderous applause that greeted the British team, which marched to the David Bowie track Heroes. A helicopter showered the athletes and stadium with 7 billion tiny pieces of paper - one for each person on Earth.
Both Bahrain and Brunei featured female flagbearers in what has been called the Olympics' Year of the Woman. For the first time at the games, each national delegation includes women, and a record 45 percent of the athletes are women. Three Saudi women marching behind the men in their delegation flashed victory signs with their fingers.
"This is a major boost for gender equality," said the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge. These are his last games as head of the IOC. He steps down in 2013 after completing the maximum two terms.
Rogge honored the "great, sports-loving country" of Britain as "the birthplace of modern sport," and he appealed to the thousands of athletes assembled before him for fair play.
"Character counts far more than medals. Reject doping. Respect your opponents. Remember that you are all role models. If you do that, you will inspire a generation," Rogge said.
The queen then said: "I declare open the games of London, celebrating the 30th Olympiad of the modern era."
In June, the nation put on a festive Diamond Jubilee - a small test run for the games - to mark her 60 years on the throne, a reign that began shortly after London's last Olympics, in 1948.
Former world heavyweight champion and 1960 Rome Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali was cheered when he appeared briefly with his wife, Lonnie, before the Olympic flag was unfurled.
Some 8,000 torchbearers, mostly unheralded Britons, had carried the flame on a 70-day, 8,000-mile journey from toe to tip of the British Isles, whipping up enthusiasm for a $14 billion Olympics taking place during a severe recession.
The final torchbearers were kept secret - remarkable given the scrutiny on these, the first Summer Games of the Twitter era.
The centre of the stadium was transformed into an English pastoral idyll complete with grassy meadows, fences, hedges, a water mill, maypoles and even a cottage with smoking chimney.
A cast including shepherdesses, sheep, geese, dogs and a village cricket team filled the stage during the one-hour prologue to the show that included a dramatic, low-level fly-past by the jets of the Royal Air Force's Red Arrows stunt team.
At one end of the stadium stands a grassy knoll topped by a tree and at the other end the bell. In front of each is a "mosh pit" of people conjuring the spirit of the Glastonbury music festival and Last Night of the Proms classical concert.
London Mayor Boris Johnson sought to sum up the mood of excitement sweeping the capital.
"The excitement is growing so much I think the Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale," he told crowds at Hyde Park in the city centre.
Among the crowd were celebrities, ordinary Londoners, visitors from abroad and dignitaries including US First Lady Michelle Obama as well as presidents, prime ministers and European royalty.
At the end of the event, which also includes speeches, the athletes' parade and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, Queen Elizabeth, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee this year, declared the 2012 Games open.
Over the following 17 days, the drama of sporting contest takes hold as more than 16,000 athletes from 204 countries will aim to achieve their ultimate dream - Olympic gold.
Danny Boyle has masterminded the show, costing 27 million pounds ($42 million) to stage, less than half the estimated spending on the Beijing equivalent in 2008 and dramatically different in style.
The ceremony opened with a countdown followed by a chime of an especially cast, 23-tonne Olympic bell which was rung by Britain's Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.
'Isle of Wonder'
Boyle's colourful and sometimes chaotic vision aims to create a kaleidoscope of what it means to be British, an approach that could appeal to the home audience but leave many foreign viewers scratching their heads at times.
Entitled Isles of Wonder and inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, the show takes viewers on a journey from what poet William Blake famously called "England's green and pleasant land" to the "dark Satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution.
Divided into three main sections, it celebrated the National Health Service, cherished by Britons despite being a political hot potato at a time when austerity measures have forced major spending cuts.
It includes a moment's silence to those who fell in conflict, spectacular light effects generated by coloured "pixel" light boxes beside each seat and giant puppets of some of the most famous characters from children's literature.
Spectators were urged to join in traditional sing-a-longs, beloved by East End pub-drinkers, and help to create spectacular visual effects at an event that sets the tone for the sporting spectacle.
Boyle has conceded that audiences overseas may be confused.
"In the second half of it you'll see what we call the industrial parade which is actually slightly surreal, some of you will be baffled, I can guarantee it," he told reporters.
He also paid tribute to the 10,000 volunteers, cast and crew taking part in the ceremony.
"We hope the feeling of the show is a celebration of generosity," he said. "There's no better expression of that than these volunteers."
Chinese reporters at the stadium asked British colleagues what the various stages meant, saying they were struggling to understand the concepts. "It's really difficult to explain this to Chinese readers," one said.
Boyle has been at pains to encourage volunteers taking part in the show and tens of thousands more who attended rehearsals this week to keep its content a surprise.
That has not prevented details being leaked through Twitter, Facebook and the mainstream media.
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney was among the many performers on the night, but the biggest secret of all - who has the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the end of the show - was a mystery till the end.
The big finale was the entrance of the Olympic Flame into the Stadium. It passed through the athletes to the final Torchbearer, who ceremoniously lit the Cauldron, indicating the beginning of the Games. The Flame will continue to burn for the whole of the Games.
More than 10,000 performers took part in the opening extravanganza which would bring about the country-side scenes -- a cricket pitch, traditional country side cottages, mining wheel and people dressed in the Victorian era.
India @London Olympics
India has sent more sportspersons -- 81 -- than to any other Olympics in the hope that they will better the country's best performance at Beijing four years ago when the nation won one gold and two bronze medals.
Beijing bronze-winning wrestler Sushil Kumar will lead the contingent by holding the Indian tricolour and soak in the electrifying atmosphere at the brand new stadium built at a cost of 486 million pounds for the mega-event.
Profiles of Indian athletes:
Yes, they can: top Indian athletes at London
Indian athletes who may rewrite Olympic history for their country
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Despite the bronze at Beijing, Sushil Kumar isn't yet done with Olympic medals. The focused wrestler is ready with a plan.
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The Contender (profile of Vijender Singh)
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Golden Eye (profile of Abhinav Bindra)
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Loaded with hope (profile of Ronjan Sodhi)
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For Lee, tomorrow never dies
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(With inputs from AP, Reuters, AFP, PTI, HT)