A flair for the theatric, not athletic, at Olympics opening ceremony

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In what undoubtedly was a painful editorial decision, stunt bike riders are out while the farm is in for Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's grandiosely titled Olympic opening ceremony, Isles of Wonder. The trick cyclists would have offered the anticipated one billion global viewers an X Games vibe for the Games of the XXX Olympiad, but the grass menagerie inside the stadium -- 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 ducks, nine geese, three cows and two goats -- better represents bucolic England, land of hope and grazing, than daredevils on two wheels.

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As dedicated ringheads already know, some 30 minutes were excised last week from Boyle's extravaganza -- the anti-directors cut -- because festivities, commencing at 9 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), would not have wrapped until past 12:30 a.m. A three-and-a-half-hour-plus ceremony certainly would have indisposed 80,000 homeward-bound spectators, even though public transportation runs until 2:30 a.m. during the Olympics, one hour later than usual. Ideally, you don't want East London looking like the last chopper out of Saigon. There also was some pressure to ensure the athletes can get to bed before the English equivalent of Jimmy Fallon starts his monologue, especially with the first event -- women's 10-meter air rifle -- starting at 8:15 the next morning.

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The British Olympic Association said it expected fewer than half of its 542 athletes to march because of the late start. As BOA chairman Lord Moynihan told journalists, "There is no athlete who goes to the Games who doesn't want to be part of the opening ceremony ... But it's wholly reasonable to choose to be asleep."

Britain opens Games with spectacular ceremony

Athletes. You remember them.

They used to be the centerpiece of the opening ceremony, the reason the youth of the world is called to gather every four years. Emphasis on the jugglers and the clowns, even the four-legged ruminant kind, now has eclipsed the parade of nations and its implicit message of universality. The fencers and rowers and judokas are extras in their own show, time fillers until the host nation marches in. Then Olympians endure an hour or more as the director reduces his homeland to stereotype in a showy infomercial that often veers into self-parody.

Theoretically Olympic opening ceremonies imagine the host nation as it is and was: a mirror of its best self. Invariably, however, the abridged history lessons are pastiches crammed with hi-tech stunts, sly boasting, native dress nobody would be caught dead in 364 days of the year and deep bows to cliché.

Boyle's take on the United Kingdom reportedly includes a cricket match, two mosh pits, picnicking families, a troupe of National Health Services nurses, some Mary Poppins and Harry Potter stuff, British humor (although probably not Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks; the men's 50 kilometer race is not until Aug. 11), Paul McCartney and -- o joy, o rapture -- rain from a fake cloud.

The show, with a cast of 10,000, required 157 rehearsals, which makes London a bunch of slackers compared to the Beijing clambake in which director Zhang Yimou had his 15,000 cast and crew members rehearse an average of 16 hours a day. (One rehearsal lasted 51 hours. The director later lamented that North Koreans could have produced even more uniformity. You don't often get somebody pining for the good old PRK.) Zhang's 2008 ceremony cost a reported $100 million, more than double the £27 million -- $42 million -- in Boyle's budget.

My first opening ceremonies were a decidedly humbler affair, conducted in a small stadium on the outskirts of the charming and absurdly overwhelmed Adirondack village of Lake Placid. I don't remember much about them except for dancing children and overpriced hot dogs. I have a keener recall of what occurred after the ceremonies, when buses scheduled to shuttle people back into town never appeared. We all tromped back the three miles or so into town on a pleasant February afternoon.

But if the opening ceremony is supposed to hold up a mirror to the Games, the aftermath was perfect. Transportation in Lake Placid never did get sorted out. Throughout the 1980s in major league baseball press boxes, a writer, for no particular reason, would suddenly intone, "The bus for Mount Van Hoevenberg leaves in 10 minutes." Those who had covered the 1980 Games would convulse in laughter. The other writers ... well, you had to have been there.

Or not. Once at the nightly seven o'clock briefing in which the hapless organizers would try to explain the bungling of that particular day, an Italian journalist, first pardoning his imperfect English, prefaced a question with, "I know a person cannot be in two places at once, but here in Lake Placid, you have made it impossible to be in one place at once."

I skipped my next opening, in Sarajevo in 1984, when the city was awash in hope and a lingering coal dust haze. Leigh Montville and I -- newspaper guys then, later colleagues at Sports Illustrated -- gained an introduction to a woman who was in her 70s, a former English teacher, who invited us for tea in her high-ceilinged apartment in the center of the city that for centuries has been an east-west crossroad for far-flung armies. As the opening ceremony took place a mile away -- the Olympic flag mistakenly was raised upside down -- she described the sound of the German soldiers' boots in the snow on the street below her window some four decades earlier. The Sarajevo show might have been more entertaining, but an old woman's tale was more harrowing, more real.

Ever since going AWOL on the opening that year, I have cherry picked my ceremonies. Of my previous 16 Olympics, I have attended about half. Yes in Seoul and Barcelona and Lillehammer and Atlanta and Nagano. No in Sydney and Athens and, regrettably, Beijing because, like the athletes in London, some of us have to get up and go to work in the morning.

Isles of Wonder was inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest," whose five acts can be read in roughly half the time of Boyle's truncated opening. The play offers Prospero, who gives a memorable speech in the epilogue. The ceremony offers an Olympic prologue to the prosperous. As of last Saturday, Level IV tickets, the cheap seats,were available for $2,885. Those won't be groundlings occupying them.

With that kind of spectator investment, Boyle's show-and-tell had better go off without a hitch, although the sprawling nature of the opening and the increasingly complex technology invite gaffes like the one two years ago in Vancouver, when one of four mechanical posts delivering torches failed to rise from the infield.

But more vexing are the clumsy artistic flaws. The Vancouver ceremony included a slam poet who reminded a global audience "we do more than sit around and say, 'eh?'" and "Canada is the 'what' in 'what's new.'" Riiiight. The sudden outbreak of nation-affirming poetry was almost as puzzling as the Albertville ceremony two decades ago. In an avant-gardist entrance, each nation paraded into the stadium behind a Frenchwoman encased in a bubble that stretched from neck to knee while accompanied on the public address system by a rhyming couplet that included the name of the country. Mercifully, Nantucket had not declared independence.

The director's best chance at creating a genuine "wow" moment, as opposed to a "wow, what the hell are those giant puppets supposed to be doing?" moment, involves the cauldron. Instead of "The Tempest," "Macbeth" should have been Boyle's inspiration. (Act IV, Scene 1: The witches.) If you remember anything from the Barcelona 1992 opening, it is the Paralympic archer's flaming arrow, which seemed to overshoot the cauldron. (Artistic license is always in order.)

An old Olympic light-heavyweight once known as Cassius Clay illuminated Atlanta 1996 while four years later runner Cathy Freeman and the submerged cauldron rising to the top of the Sydney stadium packed an emotional punch beyond the range of any gaggle of geese. I watched in a Sydney pub, a moment that was met with mouths agape and dewy eyes.

The Olympics, of course, were designed to be more than a symposium of sweat. The original Games, in ancient Greece, included cultural and artistic components, elements that Baron de Coubertin envisioned when he resurrected the modern Olympics in 1896. But now we have one night of culture and art -- if you pardon the expression -- on steroids. The spectacular has become as bloated as the Olympics themselves, which during the next two weeks will feature 26 sports and 10,500 athletes representing 203 countries, 11 more than have United Nations membership. (Puerto Rico doesn't have statehood, but it gets nationhood every quadrennial.)

Even without Boyle's bikers, the opening will be too long and too late. He has allotted 90 minutes for the parade of nations. In Beijing, it took about two and a half hours, although fewer team officials will march this time. Team Great Britain is not scheduled to enter the stadium until 11:30 p.m., at which point the evening will have run the gamut from a-to-zzzzzzs. The Times of London reported dress rehearsals have run a half hour late.

Like the Games -- BMX cycling, synchronized diving -- the opening has evolved through the quadrennials. The grandest leap probably occurred with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first mega-ceremony that introduced the torch relay and also included a stadium flyover. (The aircraft above Hitler's head? The Hindenburg.) As befitting a world recovering from war, London 1948 had an athlete-focused and buttoned-down approach to the opening, a sober treatment that continued in Helsinki 1952. (The most entertaining element of that ceremony was a German woman running onto the stadium infield.)

But like the London bus driver who took some athletes on a circuitous ride after they landed at Heathrow last week, simplicity lost its way. In an effort to show the Soviet Union's chops, Moscow 1980 ushered in the modern age of pageantry, upping the ante by featuring its world-famous ballet dancers and theme music composed by Shostakovich. Los Angeles riposted four years later with 85 grand pianos playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," counterpoint to Moscow's Olympic red menace as the world entered the final decade of the Cold War. That day some 92,000 spectators in the Los Angeles Coliseum participated in a card stunt that displayed flags of all (non-boycotting) nations.

Speaking of sheep ...

Don't discount the purchasing power of Isles of Wonder's $42 million when you are in the market for higher-faster-stronger kitsch. Although IOC president Jacques Rogue has promised that the farm animals used in the opening will not be slaughtered -- apparently only the banged-up Great Britain men's basketball team awaits that fate -- the sheep in Boyle's ploughman's England had better stick to the script. If they blow their lines, they could end up as the director's barnyard epitaph.