The London Games begin with a fun, quirky opening ceremony
But such was the grandeur of 2012, even in these tough economic times, that 80,000 people sat comfortably in a new Olympic Stadium, having traveled by sleek new bullet trains and special VIP road lanes to a new park that has completely transformed the once-derelict east London.
The New York Times
Olympic numbers204 Number of nations taking part
3,168 Face-value price in dollars for top seats to opening ceremony
10,500 Roughly the number of athletes competing
1.18 million Price in dollars of putting on the 1948 London Games
42.4 million Price in dollars of Friday's opening ceremony
15.2 billion Estimated price in dollars of putting on 2012 Olympics
LONDON — With its hilariously quirky Olympic opening ceremony, a wild jumble of the celebratory and the fanciful; the conventional and the eccentric; and the frankly off-the-wall, Britain presented itself to the world Friday night as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.
The dizzying production somehow managed to include a flock of sheep (plus busy sheepdog), the Sex Pistols, Lord Voldemort, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a suggestion that the Olympic Rings were forged by British foundries during the Industrial Revolution, the seminal Partridge Family reference from "Four Weddings and a Funeral," some rustic hovels, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and a bunch of dancing nurses and bouncing sick children on huge hospital beds in a paean to the National Health Service. It was neither a nostalgic sweep through the past nor a bold vision of a brave new future. Rather, it was a sometimes slightly insane portrait of a country that has changed almost beyond measure since the last time it hosted the Games, in the grim postwar summer of 1948.
Britain was so poor then that it housed its athletes in old army barracks, made them bring their own towels and erected no buildings for the Games. The Olympics cost less than 750,000 pounds, and though they had their mishaps — Roger Bannister reportedly had to break into a car to retrieve the Union Jack for the opening ceremony — the nation was suffused with pride that it had managed to pull off the Games at all.
There was that same sense of relief intermingled with pride this time. But such was the grandeur of 2012, even in these tough economic times, that 80,000 people sat comfortably in a new Olympic Stadium, having traveled by sleek new bullet trains and special VIP road lanes to a new park that has completely transformed the once-derelict east London.
Queen Elizabeth was there, after co-starring with a tuxedoed Daniel Craig in a witty video, and hosting a bevy of lesser royals and Prime Minister David Cameron.
The first lady, Michelle Obama, was there to cheer the U.S. athletes. And Mitt Romney was there, too, somewhere, although he was practically Public Enemy No. 1 around here after he insulted Britain by appearing to question its capacity for enthusiasm (only Britain is allowed to do that).
They all witnessed a 3-hour, 45-minute show, culminating with the lighting of the caldron, in the middle of the stadium, by seven teenage athletes after the torch was carried into the stadium by the British rower Steve Redgrave.
The ceremony, conceived and directed by the filmmaker Danny Boyle, was two years in the making. As is the case almost every Olympics, much of the speculation around it centered on how Britain could possibly surpass the previous summer host, China. In 2008, Beijing used its awe-inspiring opening extravaganza to proclaim in no uncertain terms that it was here, it was rich, and the world better get used to it.
But outdoing anyone else, particularly the new superpower China, was never the point for a country that can never hope to recreate the glory days of its empire.
Cameron, the prime minister, said this week that London's are "not a state-run Games — it is a people-run Games," and Boris Johnson, the London mayor, noted sharply that Britain was not planning to "spend our defense budget" on "pyrotechnics" but would take pride in being "understated but confident."
That the Olympics come at a time of deep economic malaise, with Britain teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession, the government cutting billions of dollars from public spending, and Europe lurching from crisis to crisis, made the scene a bit surreal, even defiant in the face of so much.
The crowd in the stadium was ecstatic, if a little bewildered at times. Meanwhile, volunteers have been behaving with an enthusiasm that seems bewilderingly un-British.
But out in the rest of the country, critics have been questioning the expense, the ubiquitously heavy-handed security apparatus, and the rampant commercialism of the Games.
In The Guardian, columnist Marina Hyde said that government officials appeared to be rashly depending on the Olympics, which cost an estimated 9.7 billion pounds (or $15.2 billion), to save the country's struggling economy virtually singlehandedly.
The final economic cost, or benefit, of the Games will never really be known. But for now, the fact that things went smoothly on Friday was in itself a minor cause for celebration.