Slumdog Olympics?

I tried to catch the Olympic spirit last night. I really did. Instead I got little bored and antsy. After watching the opening ceremony for little more than an hour, a good book beckoned. The incoherent extravaganza produced by Danny Boyle had the look and feel of a schizophrenic taking an oral exam on recent British cultural history: when all else fails, just start talking, you’re bound to say something right.

Suffice it to say, my great expectations were dashed to pieces.

It started promisingly enough. The stadium was made out to resemble a pastoral scene. Maidens played catch with pieces of fruit. An aura of seeming innocence hung over the landscape. But this was too soon replaced by rhythmic sound of the industrial revolution, tearing through the peaceable kingdom and transforming the stadium into a grimy, grinding kind of place. I kept waiting to see an image of Karl Marx sitting in the British Museum, penning his incendiary tracts. Instead what I saw were a few too many mug shots of a handful of actors acting very much like, well, actors, faces aglow with wonder, industry or whatever the scene required.

Then came the wheeling hospital beds and a tribute to the National Health Service merged with a celebration of children’s literature. Children bounced on trampoline-sized beds while their nurses danced in choreographed despair. Weird, I tell you. Was this the opening of the Olympic Games?

I tried to suspend disbelief and enjoy. Isn’t that the point? We come together every four years to celebrate sport and athletic achievement. We try, perhaps in vain, to put aside all that separates and divides and unite behind visions of human excellence. Think Olympics and think the battle of Marathon, the enduring achievement of the ancient Greeks, whose original games inspire our own.

The business of living is hard, but we can persevere, we can hope, we can strive. But in this Monty Python version of the games even Queen Elizabeth II looked confused. Perhaps that’s because James Bond came to get her at Buckingham Palace, and took her via helicopter to the stadium. Why isn’t that the grand dame herself parachuting into the stadium? No wait, there she is, looking almost confused by it all. Oh, yes, she’s a good sport after all. It’s all an evening of good zany fun, right? God save the Queen.

Traveling to Great Britain is almost always depressing. Life on the islands is a vast insider’s joke. Allusion to past grandeur is the currency of the realm. The word “brilliant” is tossed around almost as if one is to be congratulated merely for surviving. Perhaps that is what a people living on spent capital look like.

It certainly looked like spent capital last night. NBC sent Meredith Viera and Matt Lauder to cover the games. They tried to dress up the performance last night with Meredith’s glowing eyes and Matt’s boyish wonder. A billion people were said to have watched the opening. That’s roughly one in every seven people walking the face of the earth. It was showtime in London. Sit. Look. Marvel.

I was promised a presentation that would celebrate Great Britain’s contributions to the world. One would have expected a passing reference to Magna Carta, or maybe the rule of law. A scene or two from Runnymede might have worked; I suppose the beheading of Charles I would be a bit much. But what I got was a rendering of the world from the same man who produced the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” the tale of a poor Mumbai boy who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of a silly American game show. The film succeeded because it showed how in a world close, compressed and crowded desperate people will do anything for hope.

That’s hardly the spiritual confidence I think of when I imagine the first Olympic Games. Call me a disappointed viewer of last night’s circus. Yes, there were amusing moments. But in the end it was as uplifting as looking at a discarded restaurant menu retrieved from the floor of a crowded and dirty subway car.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic extravaganza is best forgotten. I suspect it soon will be. It was the midsummer night’s dream of a rootless vagrant. I hope we have not all become such vagrants. I’ll be watching the games looking for something enduring in the human spirit. That’s why I watch every four years.


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