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Snapshots: Opening ceremonies

A few hours removed from the opening ceremonies, here are a few moments and themes that stood out from inside Olympic stadium in London:

Without the unlimited budget that the Beijing organizers enjoyed, London hosts had to keep this much simpler. Instead of 2008 drums and other musical instruments and high-tech graphics, they started the evening with a bucolic prairie scene that instantly took people back to an earlier time. Picture the harsh work in the fields set against the percussion of the London orchestra and you have already quite a dramatic production. The time passages of history were punctuated by a minute of silence for the victims of wars that were a consequence of progress. The subsequent journeys through the decades that included the Beatles, The Who, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones and finally live hip-hop were superb. The segment with Sir Tim Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was quite a way to end the journey. One standout text conversation: "Where r u?" -- ""On our way to the 70s."

The head of state typically appears in the opening after a somewhat antiseptic announcement followed by some trumpets and other bells and whistles. So who would have expected in reserved, predictable England that there would a twist to the usual ceremony within a ceremony? The appearance of Her Majesty the Queen, first making a video cameo on the scoreboard and then being dramatically flown in -- OK, play along -- by James Bond before she was welcomed at her seat by IOC President Jacques Rogge was a great touch.

Of course, a little levity never hurts. Chariots of Fire has been played at opening ceremonies of sports events before. Vangelis played it live at the old 1896 stadium before the track and field's world championships in 1997. This version was a bit different. Who was hitting that one chord that always begins the song? Mr. Bean. And there he was on the scoreboard taking a car and kicking his way past other runners on the beach in a recreated scene from the film. It's clever, but it's also a departure from the formalities you normally see at an opening of the Games.

The appearance of each flag bearer leading in his or her country was, as always, quite a memorable event. It was dramatic to see fencer Mariel Zagunis lead the U.S. team onto the track. But perhaps no other athlete deserved her moment more than Caster Semenya, the woman who won a world title for her country at the 800-meter run at the world track and field championships, only to be questioned about her womanhood. The years of tumult would be enough to drive many people away from the sport that somehow exposed them to such scrutiny, but Semenya has seemingly come out of it well enough to keep striving. Even people who questioned her may finally walk behind her and celebrate her.

The decision to move the cauldron into the middle of the infield was well conceived, but so was the way to acknowledge all that potential final torchbearers without having to pick just one. Five-time rowing champ Steven Redgrave marched the torch into the Stadium, but the flame was then lit simultaneously by nominated youngsters, chosen by several of the athletes who could have been the final torchbearer themselves. Having said that, I would rather have seen Sir Roger Bannister light the torch in a more dramatic climax.

We'll get some bad letters for this, but when a lot of us saw Muhammad Ali light the torch in Atlanta, we were awed and thrilled that he would agree to do it. We were amazed that his beaten mind and body still seemed to have not just a flicker of life, but a real gleam to them. Seeing his wife, Lonnie, assist him to a chair as he followed the Olympic flag along the infield made a lot of us worry about him and want someone to take him back to safer place. His appearance in London didn't have the same uplifting effect it did 16 years ago.

What better way to end the ceremony than with a man who has penned and sung many unofficial anthems over the years? Paul McCartney can play "Hey Jude" anytime anywhere. "Take a sad song and make it better." Yup.

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