Opening ceremony: quality spectacle, but Parade of Nations still the highlight

Team USA takes its turn around the track in the Parade of Nations. (AP)

The right thing to write about the opening ceremony, we guess, is about the "opening ceremony": the outsized spectacle, the technical wizardry, the water-cooler entertainment value. There was really only one question asked about it leading into Friday's Danny Boyle-directed extravaganza: Can it live up to Beijing's?

This is all very awkward stuff within the world of sports, because it has nothing to do with sports. There are athletes present, sure, but all they do is walk around the stadium track in cool outfits. (Or, if you're poor Spain, less-than-cool outfits.) There's no competition, no athletic feats. It's the Oscars without the awards. Which is fine, which is great ... but it makes writing about the opening ceremony is not all that different -- maybe no different -- from writing a movie review. 

Since you're here, here's the review, the question answered: it wasn't as eye-popping minute-by-minute as Zhang Yimou's effort four years ago, but those glowing airborne rings were thrilling, the cauldron was beautifully ingenious, and overall it was as enjoyably over-the-top as you'd hope it to be. It was a far sight better than Vancouver's, at any rate.

With that out of the way, we're going to write about what ought to be the right thing to write about: the humble Parade of Nations. The Parade is the best, most immediate visual representation of what we call the Olympic spirit, the one part of the entire Games where every nation and every athlete stands on equal footing. During the Parade, it's not about winning and losing--it's about simply being an Olympian, and all the delight that comes with it, in every corner of the globe.

That's all incredibly shopworn, cliched stuff, of course. Which is maybe why the Parade is often treated like the ceremony's uninvited relative at Thanksgiving by the Olympics' U.S. broadcaster, who seems to save up its commercials in order to chop the parade into as many bits as possible. Who really wants to watch a bunch of deliriously happy athletes from places like the Seychelles and Honduras live out the dream of their lives? Maybe if they wore the Coca-Cola logo on their berets, we'd be onto something.

In short, the Parade is treated as something to wedge into the ceremony, rather than the foundation on which the entire ceremony is built in the first place. But while the U.S. waited for NBC to air it, overseas outlets like the BBC -- who aired the Parade uninterrupted -- showed us what it could look like: the Olympics, namely, country after country after country cloaked in their national finery and, more importantly, their national joy. If you could have turned it into a theme park ride, it would have been how Walt Disney saw "It's a Small World" in his dreams.

The nations just kept coming: Senegal. Nauru. Liechtenstein. Jamaica, with Usain Bolt toting the flag and his charisma, as always, turned up to 11. Paraguay. Thailand. Kazakhstan. Canada. The United Arab Emirates. Togo. New Zealand. The United States, our fencer at the front and our basketball superstars trailing behind her, most of them as giddy as anyone.

It's hard to explain why it was beautiful, and unless you're someone who believes in all those hoary Olympic cliches, maybe it wasn't. But it looked like beauty from here.

That's not to say there weren't other moments of beauty during the ceremony, most notably the stunning copper one-from-many cauldron. (Sorry to pour even more salt in your wounds, Vancouver, but that is how a cauldron is done.) But in the end, it's just very, very stylish window dressing for the Olympians who gathered there, a fun diversion before the Games start Saturday. That will be something worth writing about.

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