LONDON — Yes, that was Her Majesty leaving Buckingham Palace and boarding that chopper with James Bond (the Daniel Craig version), making her acting debut at 86. And no, she didn’t parachute toward the Olympic Stadium. With an estimated $850 million of public funds being spent on security, from Afghan war veterans to aircraft carriers, there was no way that Queen Elizabeth II was going to hit the silk during her Jubilee year and risk accelerating the House of Windsor’s line of succession.
Tradition was much of the reason the Lords of the Rings awarded the Games of the XXX Olympiad to the British capital for an unprecedented third time. In a day when the planet is undergoing yet another upheaval, London seemed to be a proven site where the Olympic spirit might be rekindled.
“Each time we have done it when the world faced turbulence and trouble,” Lord Sebastian Coe, chair of the organizing committee, observed during his address at Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies, which were viewed by a billion people around the planet, much of which used to belong to the British Empire. “And each time the Games have been a triumph.”
When London last played host in 1948, the city was rebuilding from the rubble of the war and the citizenry still was living on rations. This time England is mired in its worst economy since the Depression, dealing with a banking scandal and worrying about terrorists, both foreign and domestic. But the organizers are determined to carry on and carry off Games that will be memorable for the best reasons. “In the next two weeks we will show all that has made London one of the greatest cities in the world,” Coe vowed.
In 1908, when London took over from Naples on short notice, it arguably was at the center of the planet, literally the place where time (as in Greenwich Mean) began. King Edward VII, the Queen’s great grandfather, opened those Games, as did her father George VI in 1948.
When she spoke the same words to formally open the 2012 edition, it represented continuity both for the country and for this quadrennial sporting festival. “In a sense the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” remarked International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who is presiding over his final Games.
It was England that codified the rules of modern sport and affirmed the values of fair play and sportsmanship. When it played host 104 years ago, though, those rules applied to a world that was dominated by amateur males. What was telling about these ceremonies was that wealthy professionals were among the flagbearers — tennis players Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic for Russia and Serbia, basketball player Pau Gasol for Spain, sprinter Usain Bolt for Jamaica. More notable, though, was that women carried the banners of Qatar and Brunei Darussalam.
For the first time in Olympic history all 205 participating countries entered female athletes even if, in the case of Saudi Arabia, it was a grudging concession that’s unlikely to do much for gender equity in the desert kingdom. The more delicate issue at Olympus is the definition of femininity, which was highlighted by South Africa’s selecting Caster Semenya, a runner whose gender has provoked global controversy, as its flagbearer.
London was the first host to group its athletes by nation for the entry march, so the organizers felt free to break with tradition this time. Not only did the Games technically not begin on the scheduled day (the Queen made her declaration at 12:18 a.m. Saturday), the ceremonies, orchestrated by Danny Boyle, did not include the customary flock of doves or solo cauldron lighter.
Instead, men with flapping white wings rode in on bicycles. And after soccer star David Beckham, controversially passed over for the British team after he’d lobbied persuasively to land the bid over Paris in 2005, cruised up the Thames and handed off the torch to rowing immortal Steven Redgrave, the five-time gold medalist transferred it to seven young athletes, who ignited a copper petal on the stadium floor that spread to more than 200 others, whose stems rose to form the cauldron.
Thus did London conjure up its own blend of pomp, pyrotechnics, and puckishness along with a bit of whimsy and cheek, trotting out everyone from author J.K. Rowling to comic actor Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Internet inventer Tim Berners-Lee to singer Paul McCartney, who finished things off by singing “Hey, Jude.”
London knew it couldn’t match Beijing’s coming-out party for imagination, precision, and scale. But China didn’t have the Beatles, Bobbies, Big Ben or Bess Windsor, which could become the stage name of the UK’s overnight dramatic sensation if she starts turning up in the West End. Now, what will Her Majesty do for an encore at the Closing Ceremonies?