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The Olympics hadn’t even started yet when the disgraces began to pile up. First the International Olympic Committee, plainly loath to offend Muslim governments, ruled out a moment of silence at the opening ceremony for the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich forty years ago. Then last Wednesday, when South Korea’s flag was mistakenly displayed instead of North Korea’s at a women’s soccer game, Olympics officials fell all over themselves apologizing to baby tyrant Kim Jung-un’s henchmen for the error. On the same day, it emerged that Taiwan’s flag, which has been barred from Olympic venues since the 1980s for fear of offending Communist China, was also removed, on the advice of the same Olympics officials, from a display on Regent Street in downtown London – that is to say, not at an Olympic venue. And on Friday, hours before the opening ceremony, Lebanon’s judo team refused to share a training space with its Israeli counterpart – so officials, rather than telling the Lebanese to go peddle their papers, obligingly put up some kind of screen to separate them from the offending Jews.
Reading about these disgraceful matters, one found oneself asking: are the Olympics, when you get right down to it, really nothing more than the United Nations with basketball courts and swimming pools – that is, plenty of pretty rhetoric about international brotherhood, and underneath it a craven bureaucracy all too ready to appease Muslims and totalitarians?
Given these unpromising prefatory problems, one scarcely knew what to expect of the opening ceremony, conceived and created by filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire). Its first minutes, however, proved auspiciously tuneful, touching, and patriotic: children’s choirs in the stadium, and in rustic settings in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, sang, respectively, Blake’s “Jerusalem,” “Flower of Scotland,” Welsh composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s stately hymn “Cwm Rhondda,” and “Danny Boy.” The James Bond bit with the queen was amusing. As the show in the stadium began to take form, moreover, one could not help being exceedingly impressed by the mise èn scene – the evocative pastoral scene transformed before one’s eyes into an unforgettably graphic vision of the industrial revolution, complete with a group of capitalists in top hats and –
Hey, wait a minute, one started to wonder, what’s going on here?
Eventually it became clear that what we were watching was intended as a brief summary of British history – which, in Boyle’s retelling, essentially began with capitalists’ transformation of (to quote from Blake’s “Jerusalem”) “England’s green and pleasant land” into a country of “dark satanic mills.” Which raised the question: what happened to 1066, Magna Carta, Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the Spanish Armada, and Oliver Cromwell – just to name a few random highlights that predate the rise of industry?
In Boyle’s vision, what followed this grim transformation – and redeemed Britain – was, quite simply (and reductively) protest: by, among others, trade unionists and suffragettes, groups of which we saw on the march. And also medical care, on which there was an almost exclusive emphasis for the better part of a half hour. After a small army of nurses and kids in beds made their way into the stadium, some of the lit-up beds spelled out the initials GOSH, which (as most international viewers would have no way of knowing) are the initials of the Great Ormond Street Hospital, an institution for sick children founded in the early 1800s. J.K. Rowling read aloud from Peter Pan – the royalties from which (as, again, few people outside the U.K. would be likely to know) J.M. Barrie donated to that hospital in 1929. The apex of this portion of the show was the rearrangement of illuminated beds to spell out NHS, for National Health Service – a glorification, in short, of socialized medicine, and an implication that the NHS is the natural culmination of centuries of advancement resulting from leftist agitation.
After the best segment of the show – the laugh-out-loud contribution by the always hilarious Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean – came a long, busy, rather confusing and all-over-the-place tribute to the British youth culture of recent decades, notably rap music, and to contemporary social media, centered largely on the love story of a young black couple and featuring Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, at a laptop. What Boyle was doing here was painting a picture of demotic life in today’s U.K., as he apparently sees it, and suggesting that it is the triumphant consummation of everything that went before.
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