PHILIP BARKER reports on London 2012’s latest contemporary culture controversy, and delves deeper into Olympic ceremony symbolism
Remember the furore over the London Olympic logo? It seems that London 2012’s efforts to “get down wid da yoof” could rebound on LOCOG once more, this time over plans for the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August.
No sooner had Londonâ€™s Olympic organisers unveiled a glimpse of whatâ€™ll be in their eight-minute segment at the closing ceremony in Beijing in August, apparently taking the message â€œHug a hoodieâ€ to heart, than the BBC were on the streets finding an assortment of MPs and members of the public to decry the absence from the sequence of more traditional London buses, Pearly Kings and Queens and Beefeaters.
The Guardian, not normally noted for its reactionary outlook in such matters, reported:
“The unruly spirit of Britain’s ‘hoodie’ culture will take centre stage in Beijing’s Olympic Stadium in front of a TV audience of more than 100 million. An eight-minute performance led by Zoo Nation, an urban dance squad famous for a West End show which features a drug-dealing pimp and a gangster rap soundtrack, will mark the beginning of the London 2012 Olympiad.”
In fact, according to insidethegames.com, London 2012 says that the Zoo Nation would feature but more traditional dance forms, including ballet, are also included.
There was always going to be handwringing whatever London decided to do in Beijing â€“ but they can take comfort that the worst such performance in living memory came from Sydney and their ridiculous bicycling Kangaroos at the closing in 1996. As an indicator of the ultimate quality of the Sydney Games, this vignette was way off the mark. That said, the Chinese produced a stunning segment four years ago in Athens , and if their Olympic ceremonies are executed with anything like the same Ã©lan, then Londonâ€™s oeuvre could look really out of place.
Londonâ€™s segment is only one small part of the ritual on August 24 in any case but the cityâ€™s involvement will be historic. As the Beijing Games are closed, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge will utter those electric words â€œ in accordance with our tradition, I call upon the youth of the world to join us in four years’ time, in London, there to celebrate with us the Games of the XXX Olympiadâ€.
For although London, uniquely, will stage the Games for a third time, it will be the first occasion that this city has ever had the opportunity to be part of that declaration as future hosts.
The familiar rituals werenâ€™t installed until the 1920s and, in any case, previously London had always been an emergency host city, drafted in at less than two years notice. Of course, there was also a 12-year hiatus before 1948 [Editor’s note: Besides, can you imagine the possibilities for deliberate misinterpretation, with Hitler standing in the VIP box at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, being invited to meet anywhere in four years’ time? Did he need any excuse to take it all too literally?].
In Beijing, three flags will be raised, Greece, as the birthplace of the Olympics, China, the present hosts, and then the Union Flag to represent London, the next destination. It all guarantees you are certain to hear “God Save the Queen” at least once at the Beijing Olympic Games, regardless of how Team GB performs.
Even the so-called â€œAntwerpâ€ flag that Mayor Boris Johnson will symbolically receive is tinged with dispute. Introduced in 1920 (hence Antwerp), rumours abound that the original was stolen and eventually re-appeared (in any case, the flag used now is Korean. They decided in 1988 that the original was starting to look a little worn and so presented a replica, new one). The flag itself is not the one flown in the stadium during the Games but a ceremonial banner, edged with the colours of the Olympic rings.
Johnson will be the first London mayor elected by popular vote to receive the Olympic flag. In 1948 it was the City of London’s Lord Mayor who took part and London kept the flag after their Games until 1952 before passing it on to Helsinki.
This practice continued until after the 1980 Games. The flag was brought to Moscow by representatives of Montreal (even though Canada joined the Jimmy Carter-inspired US boycott), but when the Soviets refused to attend Los Angeles, they also refused to bring the flag. IOC members had to carry it into the Coliseum, an embarrassing moment for them.
Before the Games were over, the ritual was changed so that the future host city would receive it as part of the Hollywood-produced ceremony. After all, they at least could be relied upon not to rain on the parade.
In 1984, Sebastian Coe carried the Union flag at the closing ceremony as a double Olympic champion. When the Olympic flag is handed to Boris Johnson this year, the countdown clock towards 2012 will seem even more unforgiving than any stopwatch when he was winning gold on the tracks of the world.