Commentary

A ceremony's magic and misery

Updated: July 28, 2012, 1:23 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

LONDON -- I've always been conflicted about the Olympic opening ceremony, torn because I'm entranced by the arrival of the athletes, their prideful march into the Olympic arena, but completely dismissive of overwrought pageantry, stuffed unnecessarily with symbolism and mushy sentiment, most of which I cannot identify, much less comprehend.

The sheer joy on the faces of some of the world's most famous men and women is something we all understand. Even the ones who've already won enough championships and tournaments to last a lifetime look as happy as they did at 7 or 8 years old, when it first dawned on them they could do special things on a field or court and derive so much pleasure from it.

The parade of nations, no matter how many times you've seen it, is so thoroughly hopeful. Over the next two-plus weeks, it's the last time when there are no losers, no tears, no disappointment and all that work effort has gone for naught. It's not as triumphant a moment as standing there and having a medal draped around one's neck, but the parade is more inclusive and ideal. Of course, it took a while to get to the athletes, like 85 minutes. It's an evening they have to share.

[+] EnlargePaul McCartney
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/GettyImagesPaul McCartney, not Elton John, closed Friday's opening ceremony with a performance of the Beatles classic "Hey Jude."

If I ran the Olympics, regardless of where they were held, the opening ceremony would be capped at 90 minutes. There would be a flyover (go ahead, I dare you to find someone who doesn't like a flyover), the march of the athletes into the stadium, some contained artsy presentation that accurately reflects the host country's primary passion (in England's case, it could be a reading of Shakespeare, a mini-concert by the Stones, David Beckham bending it or a James Bond car chase; I'd take the latter), then the lighting of the torch. That's it. Cue the band, get everybody home safely and start the damn Games already.

But I don't run the Olympics, so there was a 50-minute "prologue" leading into the four-hour opening ceremony, which became, according to the British papers, the largest broadcast moment this country has ever experienced. As always at these events, I sat trying to figure out what certain things were, like these puffy white things that "soared" in midair and looked to an American who spends too much time at ballparks like cotton candy. My seatmate, a Briton, said, "Clouds. They're clouds. Do we really need to remind people coming to Britain that it rains all the time? Are we going to have every stereotype?" Just then -- I'm not kidding, I swear -- it started to rain.

The opening ceremony is always stunningly choreographed, seven years of work produced with proud patriotism by the most brilliant designers and musicians and dancers and singers and technical support personnel a country can call on. You think the athletes are the only ones performing in this stadium? Stuff coming out of the ground and whizzing overhead, and suddenly the entire stadium -- or at least the people who recognize a particularly somber anthem -- is standing to honor the war dead, which means more to Great Britain than Americans are likely to realize.

The Olympics Games, meaning the sporting competition, are for the world. The opening ceremony is for the host nation, really. These ceremonies are always built around themes the rest of us couldn't possibly know without a simultaneous tutorial. The parade, for instance, included trade unionists who fought for workers' rights here, suffragettes who fought for women's voting rights. There were tributes to the children's hospital and "Chariots of Fire" and "Mary Poppins," and I get it. Whether we're talking about Barcelona or Athens or Beijing or London, the host of the Olympics gets to start the biggest sporting extravaganza in the world by popping its jersey and doing an end zone dance to say, "Look at what I can do."

For those of us who've never been in the presence of the queen, being in the same stadium as her Friday was absolutely cool. But seriously, how do you do four hours of anything in England and not include Elton John? If I could pick three Britons to have dinner with, Elton John is on my short list, right behind Victoria Pendleton, the Olympic cyclist. An entire tribute to the history of British pop music, right down to an East London rapper, and no mention of Elton John? Maybe he's been disowned because he lives in Atlanta now? David Bowie, but no Elton John? Annie Lennox, but no Elton John? Isn't he Sir Elton John? Did he offend her royal highness or something? I'm not asking for a medley by Sir Elton, but the man can't get a mention?

The man who rewrote "Candle in The Wind" for Princess Diana gets shut out? That, boys and girls, is intentional. That's akin to having a tribute to pop music in the U.S. and leaving out, say, Elvis. There's no time for Elton, but there's five minutes for a choreographed dramatization of life and death using -- and I'm quoting here from a script given to the media -- "such powerful images of mortality as dust and the setting sun"? It's "Olympics: The Musical."

What does all this, any of this, have to do with sports? Next to nothing. But, of course, anyone who has worked five minutes for the International Olympic Committee will tell you the Olympics are so much bigger than sports, the television audience for the Games is so much more diverse than for an NFL or NBA game, and concerned with so much more than results and next-level statistics. It's why NBC has brought 2,700 people here to beam images and stories.

[+] EnlargeSaudi Arabia procession
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesThe London Games mark the first time that every country has at least one female athlete participating.

It's also why other sports and networks have decided to not roll over anymore and just give the Summer Olympics the entire summer. You think it's a coincidence that MLB scheduled Red Sox-Yankees, Cardinals-Cubs, Phillies-Braves and Dodgers-Giants this week? It isn't. Eyeballs, baby; specifically, hard-core-sports-lunatics-who-don't-care-about-the-pageantry-of-the-Olympics baseball fans.

That's not to suggest for one second there aren't compelling sports and culture-of-sports stories unfolding here in London. For example, the story of the 74 women from the Middle East competing in these Olympics is so fundamentally important. It's the first time, now that wrestling and boxing have women competing, every single sport has men and women competing. It's the first time, now that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have stopped banning women from competing, that every country has female Olympians, even though there are Saudi conservatives still angry over the ruling three weeks ago to allow women.

As Liz Clarke reminded readers of The Washington Post this week, Baron de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, believed that, "In the Olympic Games their primary role should be to crown the victors." Even if de Coubertin was a product of his time and essentially wanted women to be confined to cheering from the sidelines, the IOC ought to be a product of these times. It was well within its rights to lean on the Saudis and others, even if it meant quietly threatening to ban those countries unless they ceased banning women athletes. As is, the Saudi women must dress in conformity of Sharia, be accompanied by a male guardian and -- get this -- not mix with men during the Games.

No doubt the performances of these women, not just what they're wearing when they compete, will be studied over the next 16 days, and morons will whine about not wanting politics mixed with their sports, as if sports have ever been contested without politics. Ask the Iraqi athletes whether politics and sports mix; at these Games, they can finally compete knowing they won't be tortured for losing, as they were under Saddam Hussein's son Uday. Isn't it politics and nationalism that make the Olympics different, more dramatic, more serious?

Of course, the world is a different place now than the last time London hosted the Summer Olympics, in 1948, or for that matter when the Los Angeles Games were held without the Soviet bloc in 1984 (the Soviets were boycotting the U.S. after the Americans had boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow). These Games come, as almost all do, with conflict around the world, but the notion of some super enemy (at least for the U.S.) seems like such an out-of-date notion. None exists. The athletes, because we see them all the time, are too familiar. Does Marc Gasol represent Spain ... or Memphis? Is Maria Sharapova Russian or American? I forget.

Yes, there is nationalism. Tyson Chandler talked very eloquently before the opening ceremony began of being in Washington, D.C., last week, and visiting wounded soldiers from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he realized in a very somber way how his perception of representing his country changed dramatically. Still, athletes who will wear their colors so proudly over the next 16 days will return to places where Olympic rivals are again teammates or people who share an agent or physical therapist.

The world is a much smaller place than it was when Jesse Owens ran in Berlin in 1936 or when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. in basketball in 1988 in South Korea. But it's still big enough to stage events that will attract more than a billion viewers, and make an already enchanting city and host nation feel like it has opened its doors, proudly, to the biggest and most memorable party it will welcome.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon