London opens Olympics with history, feeling and meaning

LONDON — By the time Daniel Craig had ushered Queen Elizabeth II into a helicopter outside a palace, by the time that helicopter hovered and whirred over Olympic Stadium and two people leaped into the cool night air — as their Union Jack parachutes opened brilliantly to the James Bond theme — the anthem made even more sense.

God save the queen, all right — from skydiving.

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Stunt men took their places on the jump, of course. But between the music of Sir Paul McCartney and his lads in time from Liverpool, between Muhammad Ali courageously bearing the Olympic flag with other athletes-turned-humanitarians, between all the pomp and pageantry that could only be culled from Britain’s remarkable history, the host threw one splendid party Friday night to officially open the 2012 London Games.

There was magic in the choreography and the pyrotechnics, wondrous dance and lights used to illuminate everything from the Industrial Revolution to J.K. Rowling reading from “Peter Pan.”

There was meaning in the parade of nations as Saudi Arabia for the first time had a contingent of women marching in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. And there was a wall of sound when the British Olympic team marched into the stadium as the last athletes introduced.

And finally, nearly four hours after it began, torches held by teenagers were used to light larger torches, which amazingly converged into one monstrous flame. After plumes of smoke from the fireworks flooded the sky, Sir Paul belted out “Hey Jude” as 60,000 swayed to the music.

Some of the theatrics and bits were over the top and the opening felt too long and labored. But, hey, when the world’s nations come together under one flag for two weeks every four years, they’re entitled.

What other country can curtsy to a monarch with a 60-year reign? Indeed, something about Britain parlaying this party off the queen’s diamond jubilee just makes sense. When she was introduced and she smiled briefly, the reverence was palpable. In that way, these are the Jubi-lympics.

From now until next Sunday, Usain Bolt will try to become the first man to ever win back-to-back gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter finals at the Games. Ryan Lochte will attempt to become the greatest swimmer in the world, and to do it, he will have to beat only the man who figures to finish his career as the greatest Olympic champion, medals-wise, in any discipline ever, Michael Phelps.

Kobe, Melo, LeBron and the fellas from Team USA will rout inferior basketball nations by 30 points or more and hope beyond hope that Pau Gasol and Spain don’t ruin their gold-medal dream. (Memo to Pau and Manu Ginobili, Lithuania and anyone else with a decent team: It’s not happening.)

And amid the famous, there will be the anonymous — the real stories of the Olympiad, the disposable heroes who become famous every four years. Those are the ones we need to watch and emulate most.

Such as South Korean archer Im Dong-hyun, who pulled back his bow to set a world record Friday night. Oh, he’s legally blind.

Whatever happens, London got off to a tremendous start — much better than the Austerity Games it last hosted post-World War II.

In 1948, a young medical student who volunteered as an assistant to an Olympic official was dispatched for an absolute emergency:

Someone had lost the Union Jack. Britain had no flag for its athletes to march with into the stadium. Luckily, that 19-year-old med student could run. Oh, could he run.

Roger Bannister commandeered a jeep outside Wembley Stadium, found the car with an extra flag among thousands in the parking lot and, without the keys to the vehicle, shattered a window and grabbed it.

“So I smashed the back window with a stone, while the sergeant restrained a policeman who wanted to arrest me,” he recalled in his memoir. “Using the pole as a battering ram, with the spike foremost, I charged through the crowd.”

The man who would become Sir Roger, the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, reached the flag-bearer within seconds before Britain entered the stadium.

Friday night was less frantic in East London.

Bannister was thought to be the perfect choice to light the cauldron for many reasons. As the first man to run a mile under four minutes in 1954, his name resonates more than Daley Thompson, the gold medalist decathlete, and Steve Redgrave, the rowing legend who won gold at five consecutive Olympics before retiring in 2000.

Though he never medaled in the Games, his fourth-place finish in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Helsinki Games became the fuel for him to remain in competitive running and set his sights on history.

But from the beginning, London’s organizers said this was about the inclusion of everyone, of cleaning up East London and making it livable for children, of going green and using sustainable plants and animals and fibers and metals.

And as Sir Paul kept belting out, “Hey Jude” with the help of his countrymen, countrywomen and, who knows, the queen, it became pretty clear: Nearly 70 years later, the old city was still very sustainable.

For previous Mike Wise columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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