Lighting the flame

Opening ceremonies have become as much a part of the Olympics as the sport itself.

    The flaming archer from Barcelona '92 is widely seen as one of the defining moments of the Olympics [GALLO/GETTY]

    You know the score by now: The flaming torch enters the stadium, the crowd cheers, the choir rings out, and after several months - years, even - of hype it is time to finally let the games begin.
    A spectacular, heart-pounding opening ceremony has become as much a feature of the modern Olympics as the sport itself.
    With each successive Olympics, organisers have come up with ever more elaborate ways to open the games and light the flame. For some the ceremonies are a defining feature; for others, an unwelcome diversion from the real action.
    As the choir reaches a suitable crescendo, the torch is passed to a special mystery star given the honour of igniting the flame that burns throughout the Olympic fortnight.
    In Athens in 2004 the flame stood atop a giant pivoted steel arm that bowed down into the stadium to be lit. In Sydney, four years earlier, a huge circular cauldron rose magically from a pool of water, surrounding athlete Cathy Freeman in a spectacular ring of fire.
    It is all a far cry from the 1976 games in Montreal, when an official reportedly resorted to his pocket cigarette lighter to reignite the flame after it was doused by heavy rain.

    Closely guarded secret
    So how will China go about it this time around?

    Athens 2004 saw a giant steel arm bow down into the stadium [AP]
    Like the rest of the opening ceremony that remains a closely guarded secret. The 15,000 performers and hundreds of producers and technicians involved have been required to sign a strict confidentiality agreement.
    But if the massive investment of cash, manpower and sheer enthusiasm that China has already shelled out is anything to go by, it is a fair bet that the Chinese will opt for something with a bit more "wow!" than a flick from a Zippo lighter.
    Producers of the Beijing opening ceremony, led by film director Zhang Yimou, say it is one of the most technically complex shows ever put together.
    Zhang, whose films include the martial arts spectacular House of Flying Daggers, has said the ceremony will "showcase the ancient and long history of the Chinese nation".
    The show "will reflect the cultural aspects of Chinese society" he told reporters this week, as well as "showcase what modern China and its people are all about".

    'Times have changed'
    Ric Birch, the international artistic advisor to the Beijing games ceremonies, says the ceremony has involved more than two years of planning, with hundreds of ideas developed and discarded along the way.
    Even until the final rehearsals, he says, the ceremony has been tweaked and tinkered with to ensure the show has maximum impact.


    Coverage from the 29th summer Olympics

    "The elements that work are always emotional, and we really try to create those moments," he said. "A couple of segments have been changed quite significantly once we saw it tested in the stadium."
    Birch's company, Spectak productions, specialises in producing what he calls "entertainment on a grand scale".

    He has little time for people who say the spectacle detracts from the sport which many believe should be the real focus of the Olympics.
    "That usually comes from old sportsmen, some of whom have come up to me and said 'aw jeez Ric, I used to love it when the athlete just went up, lit the torch and then they started racing'.
    "To that I've got to say: 'yeah, but times have changed and television's been invented since those days'."
    Beginning with the Commonwealth games in Brisbane in 1982, Birch has produced some of the most spectacular opening ceremonies of recent times, including Los Angeles in 1984 - a performance that included no less than 84 grand pianos - Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and the Turin winter games in 2006.

    A key ingredient to a great opening ceremony Birch says are the big "visual moments".
    "If you think back it's surprising how many of the images that you associate with an Olympic games are associated with the ceremonies. In Los Angeles in '84 we had a rocket man who flew over the audience - anyone who was there still remembers that."

    Chinese theme
    For Beijing, unsurprisingly, organisers have chosen a distinctly Chinese theme - one they say will appeal both to domestic audiences at home in China and the billions they anticipate will watch around the world.
    Who will light the flame in Beijing remains a closely guarded secret [EPA]
    "We know from the dress rehearsal that the Chinese are hugely proud of the ceremony," says Birch.
    At the end of the show some 29,000 fireworks are set to be released into the night sky. China, after all, is the place that invented fireworks.
    So what about lighting the flame itself?
    Like the rest of the ceremony, expect to see a distinctly Chinese theme. Rumours doing the rounds say it will involve some spectacular aerial acrobatics with either a dragon or a phoenix sweeping down into the stadium.
    One tip to organisers might be to avoid following the example of Seoul in 1988 when hundreds of doves were released into the stadium just before the Olympic cauldron burst into fiery life.
    Nice touch - but few, it seems, had considered the possibility that after a quick flutter around the stadium the doves might then opt to perch on the cauldron itself. Cooing doves and a soon-to-be roaring gas-fuelled inferno do not make a great combination.
    Whether any of the feathered performers were indeed barbequed has never been officially confirmed but it was not perhaps the image organisers had intended.

    'Great Olympic moments'
    Perhaps the most spectacular - even audacious - method of lighting the flame was in Barcelona in 1992, when a flaming arrow shot by an archer from inside the stadium soared into the sky igniting the Olympic cauldron high above.
    "That's one of the indelible memories of the Olympics," says Birch, "and one that the IOC still says is one of the great Olympic moments."
    At the time, more than a few people were disappointed when it was later revealed that the flaming arrow had soared far above the stadium and rim and landed in a field outside, rather than in the cauldron itself.
    That, says Birch, was always the plan. "It was meant to go over the top. The last thing we wanted was an arrow in there puncturing the gas pipes."
    Will there be gasps once again when the flame is lit in Beijing on Friday night?
    "You bet there will," he says.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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