Exactly a year ago tomorrow, I sat down with my twelve-year-old son in the Olympic Stadium to watch the Opening Ceremony. Extra tickets had become available about a month or so beforehand – they weren’t cheap, but as a Londoner the chance to be there was too good to miss.
We’d got there early, long before the world’s television cameras started rolling. The stadium’s centre was an idyllic British rural scene – small cottage, small fields, trees, hedges. Every now and again someone would appear with farm animals: geese, cows, horses, sheep. In a Monty Pythonesque touch, people walked around the track with enormous floating clouds.
Danny Boyle, the creative genius behind the whole ceremony, spoke to the crowd in the stadium just before we went live to the world. He thanked the volunteers for keeping the details of the show secret, said that he hoped we’d enjoy the show, and then, in another very British moment, said “I just hope it doesn’t rain”.
What followed was spectacular, an extraordinary representation of Britain’s move from agriculture to becoming the first industrial society in the world, a focus on the changes that had affected British life since then, and a celebration of British invention, music, literature and culture.
One of the great joys of diplomatic life is the chance to see your country as others see it. The New York Times described the ceremony as “quirky”, “eccentric” and “off the wall”. American friends here expressed their delight at the spectacle, and at the self-confident way Britain presented itself to the world, both at the opening ceremony and throughout the games.
The most frequent question I was asked was why the National Health Service had been celebrated so prominently, which led to interesting discussions about the difference between healthcare in the US and in the UK. This was usually followed by a question about one of the many British cultural references in the ceremony (Grange Hill, anyone?).
What was it like being there? The main difference between the television coverage (which we watched later) and being in the stadium was that the TV cameras tended to focus on individual performers or events rather than the show as a whole.
Watching hundreds of performers at once as the industrial chimneys rose out of the green and pleasant land, or the Olympic rings joining together from across the stadium in a shower of sparks, came close to sensory overload.
We’ve already seen the tremendous economic benefit that the London 2012 Olympics have brought the UK, as well as a cultural shift including a boost in volunteerism and sports participation. The UK government continues to support the legacy of London 2012, amplifying the echoes of Olympic spirit I witnessed at the Opening Ceremonies throughout Britain for the benefit of its citizens.
One moment summed up the whole experience for me.
The British and US Olympic Teams were walking around the track, with David Bowie’s “Heroes” playing and all 80,000 spectators on their feet cheering. And in the centre were all the other Olympians from all over the world who had participated in the opening ceremony: Britain’s guests, along with their teams and supporters, for an extraordinary two weeks of sport and friendship – and an evening that was both something immensely personal and which will shape the world’s perceptions of modern Britain for years to come.