A plan to ban fireworks from the Opening Ceremony of the games, prompted IOC President Jacques Rogge into prolonged reminiscence about a salutary tale from the annals of Olympic history. Rogge, one of the rare members of the IOC to think historically when faced with a new challenge, went back to the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Games, when the Olympic Cauldron was lit at the beginning of the Games by three athletes who rose on a hydraulic platform to an elevated cauldron sitting high above the stadium in Seoul. Doves which had just been released were still wheeling in the stadium. Some had come to settle on the cauldron towards which the athletes were rising with torches held aloft.
Rogge recalled what happened next – a sight that was visible to over 1 billion people who were watching the event on television. “The doves went in the cauldron and tens of doves were burned alive and there was a lot of emotion from the World Wildlife Fund and animal protection and the IOC decided no doves would be released any more,” he said.
(If you can’t stand the suspense go to 4:50 for the frying.)
Watching the footage again, one can’t help but feel a tad sorry for the IOC. Most of the birds wisely fly away at the first sign of the torches, but a conspicuous and in must be said utterly stupid, handful of pigeons, fail inexplicably to flee and are clearly cooked. It’s like watching a strangely ostentatious and particularly cruel barbecue – a piece of culinary barbarism that rendered pointless the protracted efforts made by Seoul’s civic authorities to suppress the eating of dog amongst its populace during the Games for fear of upsetting the foreigners.
Yet the releasing of doves had been part of the games since the Antwerp Games in 1920 as a commemoration for those who had died in the First World war. Originally the Games had been planned for Budapest but following hostilities the Hungarians were stripped of the event. Furthermore, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey were also banned from competing in the Games. The doves commemorated those that had died fighting on the side of the victors. It was only subsequently the gesture came to signify in the IOC’s parlance peace between nations, regardless of their role in specific conflagrations. In a piece of post-rationalisation the doves became intertwined with the tradition found in the ancient Games of their existing for the duration of the Games a truce between the warring cities of Greece. (A tradition which was often ignored.) However in 1920 the Germans, along with their allies were not allowed to attend the Olympic Games under pressure from the French. Peace amongst nations indeed. Typically for Olympic pageantry, this celebratory gesture, so quickly adopted and more often than not belying a more complex political reality, is hard for us to let go of. The Paloma de la Paz (pictured above) was used as an unofficial mascot at the Games of 1968 in Mexico. Some still consider it as a fig-leaf to cover the Tlatelolco massacre , a government assault on predominantly student protestors in the host city, which left hundreds dead. At the very least it is a sop to it.
After, the decision was made to stop the simultaneous release of doves with the lighting of cauldrons, the image of the dove persisted for a good while longer in Olympic imagery. Live doves were released at the 1992 Opening Ceremony in Barcelona, but this had to be done several hours before the flame was lit. Later opening ceremonies show that it took the Olympic movement a while to kick their dove habit. Balloon doves were released in 1994 at the Lillehammer Winter Games and paper doves were used at the Atlanta Ceremonies in 1996.
Indeed the pageantry of The Games which predominantly developed in an ad hoc fashion between the wars, is now becoming virtual. When the Sri Lankan National Olympic Committee president Hemasiri Fernando says the extensive use of fireworks during the ceremonies causes a potential polluting effect, one can’t help remember the stunning sequence of firework footprints during the opening ceremony for the Beijing games.
After over-hearing an animator boasting in a bar, a reporter for China’s Beijing Times revealed days later that the sequence had not actually happened. Around three billion people watched the animation believing that a series of giant footprints created by fireworks had proceeded through the night sky from Tiananmen Square to the Bird’s Nest stadium and had been filmed from above by a helicopter. A fallacy as it turned out.
So whilst the reason to get rid of fireworks is ostensibly their perceived environmental threat – “we all have the responsibility to protect this earth and the fireworks have a tremendous effect on the environment,” says Fernando – this feeds into a greater faith in the virtual. Indeed, the perniciousness of fireworks to plant and animal life is largely unproven. It seems more about controlling the kind of complexity that sees doves accidentally fried than anything else. The fact that Danny Boyle the artistic director of the opening ceremony for London 2012 has affirmed his faith in the performance being a live one, is only partially reassuring.
As the consequence of the steady inflation of expectation when it comes to ceremonies and the need to control the chaos, the 21st century has seen the rise of the professional Ceremony producer. Hamish Hamilton, who will work alongside Boyle in the organisation of the London 2012 ceremonies made his name directing events such as the MTV and BRITs. This year he directed the half-time show for the Super Bowl and the Oscars. These two events are ostensibly live events but have become far more emphatically television events; largely augmented by film or TV footage.
Beijing was the first time the International Olympics Committee employed its own broadcaster to provide full coverage of the sport and ceremonies to different channels around the world. London will be the second time. No pigeons will be hurt during the opening ceremony but then the fireworks may have to be faked. It seems strange that the sport being celebrated is so unpredictable but the ceremonies themselves are controlled to the point where parts of them no longer exist in any material way.