Monday, 25 August 2008

Beijing Olympics: Some Final Comments

Again, kudos to the Beijing organizers for a superb Olympics. At least on television, the venues looked extremely well designed for their particular sports, the TV coverage was the best I have ever seen, the sports timing and organizing seemed from TV to be almost perfect. I enjoyed every minute.

However, now to politics and the reason these Olympics were hosted by China. We have just witnessed the most lavish and expensive rite of passage in history: two weeks of one country trying to prove it is capable of joining the ranks of the major economic powers of the world; two weeks of one country trying to overcome a massive inferiority complex; two weeks of one country daring the rest of the world to do better; two weeks of the rest of the world trying to break through an artifical facade to catch even a tiny glimpse of the true feelings of a nation. At the end, after the light of the last firework has faded, I'm still not convinced that the world knows any more about China than it did in July 2008.

To be sure, the Opening Ceremonies were incredible. Yesterday's Closing Ceremonies were equally impressive - from a technological and organizational standpoint. BUT ----- where was the emotion? I as much as anybody was truly blown away by the mass choreography, the ingenious use of technology, the impeccable timing, all of which was done to perfection by the Chinese. However, if entertainment is to be successful, it must dig very deep. It must tug at the heartstrings; it must pull out a belly laugh; it must make us cry or laugh uncontrollaby or send shivers up our spines. The Closing Ceremonies, in all their glory, did not do it for me, spectacular though they were. Good entertainment is so much more than artificial smiles or loud music or putting thousands of performers through their paces seamlessly. Truly great entertainment does not have to be expensive or huge.

In other places and at other times, I have been moved to tears by a single tiny puppet on a string. I have been moved to tears by a solo musician playing a piece of music with such passion that the moment transcended the music. Great entertainment conjures up what anthropologist Victor Turner has called communitas, that spirit of feeling at one with the universe and fellow human beings. Other Olympics have done this very successfully and with fewer numbers and much lower cost than China. One simple word of advice for China - and it does not just apply to the Olympics but to so much more - replace "rote" with "emote," and mean it.

For Vancouver in 2010 and for London in 2012, I say forget about anyone who asks, "How are you going to top the Beijing ceremonies?" Work with people's emotions and draw them out. You will never successfully compete if you try to match scale - and yes, it is possible to move 90,000 people, or even the entire world - with a single puppet on a string. It just takes a little ingenuity.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

My Thoughts on the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies

Well, it finally happened - and it was the spectacular show I was expecting.

The Chinese really did deliver with these ceremonies. It was a stunning blend of state-of-the-art technology, human choreography, and creative genius. The huge, bright rollout LED screen and the stadium surround-scrim, plus accompanying automated lighting (presumably digital) and projection technology, were all impeccably programmed, not to mention the mind-blowing fireworks. It must have taken years of programming to get the details and transitions perfected. I certainly did expect the massed entertainment as that has always been part of the Chinese tradition, but this was done to perfection, right down to each individual performer's exact execution of moves. What was a nice surprise was not to see too much of the trite Chinese symbols such as dragons, excessive martial arts (although the Tai Chi performance was truly great), acrobats, Terra Cotta warriors, etc. The performances were more to do with ingenuity and building unusual interpretations on the theme of China coming into its own in the world. (Canada take note for the 2010 Winter Olympics - stay away from trite Canadian symbols!!)

An interesting commentary on where the Olympics are going was given almost inadvertently by one of the NBC commentators who said that it was obvious that the "Bird's Nest" had been purposefully built as a venue for the Opening Ceremonies, to the effect that the producer almost said, "Here is what I want to do; now build me a stadium to do it in." I wonder if the rest of the world is taking note. The spectacle is more important than the sports, because that's what sells. How many people watch the ceremonies and not any of the sports?? It would be interesting to see the numbers. This really is the age of event marketing.

Can't wait for the Closing Ceremonies - but I will watch as many of the sports in between as possible.

Well done, China!