Marching into Beijing's Olympic stadium with Team GB was like coming out of the Wembley tunnel for the FA Cup Final
Opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games have a very special significance. The first symbolises hope and anticipation, a metaphorical starting gun that ends four years of hard, unrelenting effort for many of the assembled athletes and coaches; and the ending is a joyous relief that this commitment is over, albeit temporarily for the majority, enhanced by the happiness of those who have succeeded, not just with medals but also with personal bests and courageous endeavour.
But both ceremonies have more than just the Olympics in common. They celebrate not just the “greatest show on earth” but, more importantly, a kind of worldwide teamship. The Russians and Georgians may be staring down the barrel of each other’s guns, but in the Olympic Village their athletic citizens are swapping pins.
Pin-swapping is a peculiarly Olympic activity. It is a kind of ritual, which was certainly there when I was in Barcelona (1992) and has grown even more significant since. If you swap pins then the thing to do is stick your home country pins on the ribbon of your accreditation badge and – hey presto – within a minute of outing yourself, someone will ask you to swap!
I tried it today, while queuing for a coffee, and instantly a nice lady called Moira from Malaysia asked me to swap. We struck up a pleasant conversation, just one of hundreds that take place every hour in the Olympic Village, all because of this remarkably localised, global trade in lapel pins. It is perhaps less underground than it once was: in Barcelona, it was a little like furtively being asked to change money in the eastern bloc countries of another age. Now there is a thunderously busy Pin Trading Centre in the Village’s International Zone.
I don’t know what it looked like on TV but the Opening Ceremony was an awesome event to be part of. The marching athletes (and sundry, lucky “officials”, like me) don’t actually get to see much of it. In each of the three Opening Ceremonies I’ve been privileged to march in, the same format has been followed. Thousands of athletes are bussed, two hours early, from the Village to be seated in the Gymnasium arena (which is always next to the main stadium) in a strict order.
The Greeks – as founders of the Olympics – always march into the stadium first, followed by each other competing nation in the alphabetical order of the host nation. For China, this means something to do with the number of strokes in a symbol and their angles, or so I was led to believe. This led to Yemen being one of the first nations and Australia being the last before the host nation. Great Britain was 116th. When the announcements to leave the stadium begin, it’s like queuing at the deli when your ticket number if 116 and they’ve just called number 2!
Eventually, you get to line up, ten abreast, flag bearer at the front (in our case the veteran swimmer, Mark Foster) and there is a long, halting snake-like march through the Olympic Park to the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
I’ve seen the Aquatics Centre ('the water cube') several times in the build-up to the Games but never at night and its incredible ice-blue light in the bubble shapes of the external cladding is quite magical, as is angular steel patterns of the Bird’s Nest itself, of course. However, the building that really caught my eye on the march was the media centre, in which the BBC studios are contained – among others – for the Games.
It is like something straight out of ‘Bladerunner’; it certainly doesn’t look like a building, more like something a shuttle would be launched from. It forms the base for a spectacular light display which complements the whole futuristic feel of the Olympic Park.
What is even more spectacular is the thought that these studios weren’t there a few months ago – the story seems to be that the major broadcasting companies weren’t happy with studios that didn’t overlook the main stadium and so a very late decision was made to build some that did. When I was here in April only a skeletal structure was vaguely in place. It is remarkable that such an iconic building has been designed and constructed so quickly.
The moment of entering the Olympic Stadium with over 90,000 people is stunning – I guess it might be akin to walking out onto the Wembley turf for an FA Cup Final. I was lucky to be on the spectator’s side at the edge and the few minutes of perambulating the 400 metre track were truly unforgettable, as was the immense cacophony of noise when the host nation entered the arena, and the stunning aerial run around the stadium roof to light the enormous Olympic flame.
205 nations have joined together for these Games – although for some reason Brunei didn’t make it to the Opening Ceremony - and when you see athletes from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, the USA and Israel all walking into the same arena, to the same cheers of an ecstatic crowd, it is hard to imagine the Olympic movement as anything but a good thing.
Graham Watts is team of Team GB's fencing team and CEO of the Construction Industry Council.