A many splendoured thing

The opening and closing ceremonies have grown in scale, grandeur and importance. An Olympics is now being remembered not only for the excellence in the competitions but also for its cultural fervour and the riot of colours, writes S. R. Suryanarayan.

At the Paris Games in 1900 there was no mention of an ‘Opening’ or a ‘Closing’ ceremony. The Games began and ended with a limited agenda and little fuss though the events stretched from May to October.

However, from the time of the Ancient Games there were ceremonies to mark the beginning and ending of each edition. While the presentation of the Games has evolved, thanks to the advancement of technology and the keenness of the host to showcase its artistic expression, the basic elements of each ceremony remain unchanged. They are still steeped in tradition.

Over 100 years from the Paris Games, the Olympics has become a compact two-week affair. But these two aspects of the Games, namely the opening and closing ceremonies, have grown in scale, grandeur and importance. An Olympics is now being remembered not only for the excellence in the competitions but also for its cultural fervour and the riot of colours.

Indeed the modern Games encompasses not just the essence of sporting competitions but in keeping with the thinking of founder, Pierre de Coubertin, there is a whole new focus on the creative efforts of the host. The protocol and splendour of the Olympic ceremonies make the Games an event that is unique and unforgettable.

As mandated by the Olympic Charter, various elements, mostly rituals that were canonized at the 1920 Antwerp Games, figure in the Opening Ceremonies of the Games. Since the 1980 Moscow Olympics the artistic presentations have grown in scale and complexity. The opening ceremony at the Beijing Games, for example, reportedly cost $100 million with much of the cost incurred for the artistic facets of the ceremony.

But what is the traditional complement? The ‘Parade of Nations,’ during which most participating athletes (not compulsory for all to attend) march into the stadium, country by country. Each country's delegation is led by a placard with the name of the country and by the nation's flag. Traditionally, starting with the 1928 Games, Greece enters first, due to its historical status as the progenitor of the Olympics, while the host nation marches in last.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Greek flag led the parade, while the Greek team marched in last, as the host nation. The protocol is for the Head of the State to open the meet. The Olympic flag is then carried horizontally into the stadium and hoisted as the Olympic hymn is played. The Oath follows and finally comes the Torch. Doves are then released symbolising peace, but this gesture was replaced with the ‘symbolic release of doves’ after several doves were burnt alive in the Olympic flame at the 1988 Games.

In contrast, a feature of the closing ceremony is the mixing of all athletes, a tradition that manifests in the way the placard-bearers announcing each participating country enter the stadium in single file, and behind them march all the athletes without any distinction or grouping by nationality.

Credit for this, it is said, should go to a Melbourne student, 16-year old John Ian Wing, a British resident of Chinese descent, who wrote to the 1956 Games host (Melbourne) that athletes and national flags should enter the stadium freely without being separated into national groups. This idea was soon to become a custom at the closing ceremony.

After the athletes enter the stadium, three national flags are hoisted one at a time while the corresponding national anthems are played: the flag of Greece on the middle pole to honour the birthplace of the Olympic Games, the flag of the host country on the left and the flag of the country hosting the next Olympic Games on the right.

The IOC President then formally declares the Games closed. But what captivates the thousands who throng the stadium and the millions who watch on television is the artistic extravaganza with each host having a theme to portray. It was in 1960 that the entertainment industry became involved with the Olympic Games for the first time. The Walt Disney Company took entertainment to a different level. Four years later at the Tokyo Games, dance made its appearance to link the ancient and modern Games.

The host nation also injected a Japanese atmosphere in an effort to promote the nation. Since then this has become an Olympic tradition, something every host nation has looked forward to, to exhibit in style.

The 1968 Mexico Games opened in the background of student protests and a host of problems connected with that. The authorities wanted to use the Games to show the nation’s strong economic development and the rise of Mexico’s middle class.

The closing ceremony also conveyed a celebratory climate. The host provided a stunning artistic segment representing Mexico’s tradition and culture. The Games also for the first time saw a woman, Enriqueta Bassillo Sotalo, lighting the Olympic flame.

During the 1972 Munich Games, children formed a part of the thematic elements in the ceremonies. Overall it was a spectacle engaging participants, athletes, and performers in the arena and joined by the spectators in the stands.

The Moscow Olympics in 1980 set a benchmark as the Russians drew on all their rich experience in theatrical production. The Soviets also invented a new design for the torch and introduced a specially designed costume for the runners of the torch relay. Mascot Misha’s touching farewell is still remembered. Like in 1960 the entertainment industry played a significant role.

The scale of entertainment at the opening and closing ceremonies was getting more and more pronounced. Precision and punctuality were the keys from there as Los Angeles in 1984 provided a Hollywood touch to an enthralling experience, while Seoul four years later lent aesthetic delight. Innovation was the focus in Barcelona in 1992 where a flaming arrow from archer Antonio Rebollo was said to have lighted the Flame (though actually it was done by remote control). But the theme of the mythical birth of Barcelona from the sea, complete with ocean battles between sea monsters and humans and the music that followed made it one of the most spectacular opening ceremonies. Equally fantastic was the way the Games ended with an ‘Ode to Fire’ to describe the festive spirit.

The last Games of the millennium in Sydney (2000) took the level to a fantasy. That Samaranch, the then IOC President described it as the ‘best Games ever’ aptly pegged the Australian effort at a new high.

Orthodoxy and tradition were the high points in Greece 2004, but Beijing again in 2008 dared to something new and came up with a spellbinding show. Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the Olympiad, called the ceremony “a grand, unprecedented success.” Equally fabulous was the touching closing ceremony at the same ‘Birds Nest’ (national stadium), a term that had become so dear to one and all. “You cannot but live in the shadow of your predecessors. [The London opening ceremony] will be spectacular,” promises Danny Boyle, the man behind what is to come in London.