By Alexander Wolff
July 27, 2012

Somewhere amidst the traumatized pasture animals; and Mr. Bean's reenactment of Chariots of Fire on the beach; and the parachute jumps of James Bond and the Queen from a helicopter; and the joint lighting of the cauldron by seven young British athletes, each chosen by a former Olympic great -- somewhere, that is to say, between Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins' ringing of the Olympic Bell and the echo of Paul McCartney's final note of Hey Jude -- artistic director Danny Boyle smuggled into the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics a worthy and important thing.

He gave us a chance to celebrate protest and dissent.

Four years ago, after a comparable night on the other side of the globe, the rest of the world had a moment of collective sadness for the London organizers. No way could the stagers of the next Olympics possibly equal Beijing's lid-lifting spectacle. But tonight we learned that if the guy in front of you zigs, it's best to zag. Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, spent almost four times less money and deployed roughly one-tenth as many people. But he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed.

This was pageantry as jiu-jitsu. While Britain's coalition government weighs further cuts to its government-run health-care system, Boyle went out of his way to honor the National Health Service, with real NHS employees as nurses capering on hospital beds.

The show also included a nod to the early-20th-century suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and the Jarrow Marchers, who in 1936 walked more than 300 miles from County Durham to London to protest hunger and joblessness. When Boyle made a point of inviting their descendants to the proceedings, he also made a point to us.

With The Queen in the house, we heard music from the Sex Pistols, the same band whose God Save the Queen was banned by the BBC. Boyle meant for us to take to heart that line from The Tempest, read early in the evening by Kenneth Branagh: "Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises."

On these isles of wonder, tumult is a good thing.

The Olympics, of course, have a long and troubling history with protest and dissent. The Games have mostly been hostile to them. Showing in other parts of London right now are two productions of a much more modest scale, each of which speaks to this. One is a documentary called Salute, which tells not only of black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were banned from the Olympic movement for raising fists on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but also of the white Australian silver medalist, Peter Norman, who got similar treatment for wearing a badge, in solidarity with Smith and Carlos, because he objected to the treatment of Aborigines in his own country. (Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers at Norman's funeral in 2006.)

The other, a play called 1936, was written by former British Olympic track coach Tom McNab. It makes the case that history would have followed a different course if the Olympic movement had stood up to Hitler before he turned the Berlin Games into the propaganda exercise that helped consolidate his power. Olympic blazer-wearer Avery Brundage, so appalled by the Mexico City protest years later, did all he could to suppress any disapproval of the Nazi regime, much less support organizers of a U.S. boycott.

Even today, you can't wear a Che Guevara or Jean-Marie Le Pen t-shirt into an Olympic venue. The sole instance in which the Olympic movement has stood up for protest and dissent was its shunning of South Africa's apartheid regime.

So all props to Boyle, the son of a boiler stoker and a school lunch lady, who lives in Tower Hamlets, one of the East London communities adjacent to the stadium where he let loose his colors and sounds on the world.

Somewhere in the cacophony of last night, during what might have been the world's largest Twitter storm, this nugget emerged: Hey Jude was No. 1 on the charts the day Smith and Carlos raised their fists -- and that single's B-side was Revolution.

To speak one's mind or assert one's rights is as irrepressible a human instinct as running or jumping. Of that, let us be not afeared.

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