There is an episode of "The Simpsons" where Springfield is hosting a film festival. Everyone in town, it seems, is putting a short film together to enter. That includes money-man extraordinaire Montgomery Burns. He calls in his principle minion, Mr. Smithers, and orders him to hire Steven Spielberg. Smithers replies that Spielberg is just plain unavailable [even Monty Burns' money has a limit]. Okay, Mr. Burns replies, get his non-union Mexican equivalent, Senior Spielbergo.
When the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics were in their early planning stages, the Olympic Committee had the services of the genuine Spielberg. Then, owing to China's frankly disturbing politics, he withdrew. But, like Monty Burns, the organizers had a substitute in mind. His name is Zhang Yimou [right], a noted film director himself. One of the commentators on TV noted that the Opening Ceremonies had the look of Zhang creating a cinematic spectacle with a truly unlimited budget. The exact amount spent for Friday night's presentation is no doubt a State secret, but let it be said; whatever was spent on those ceremonies, the Chinese Olympic Committee truly got its money worth, if not more. I don't think I will ever forget watching the last Torch bearer lifted to the rim of the Bird's Nest stadium, there to "run" the length of the stadium [see "Video Of The Week", below right], before lighting a previously hidden cauldron, made to look like the torches each runner in the Relay had carried [one wonders if using a giant torch might remind viewers of the controversy that surrounded the relay. Sports and politics are uncomfortable companions, no matter how important the cause that motivates the protest].
The lighting of the Olympic flame has become more and more an art form. I remember the archer, firing a flaming arrow at Barcelona, Muhammad Ali battling his Parkinson's disease to fire the bowl in Atlanta. It has become, truly, a beautiful moment. But I wonder how many people remember the story of how the torch Relay began. We really don't know whether or not the ancients used a relay as part of their ceremonies [although fire was certainly involved in the rites; after all, the events were of a religious nature, and fire is a part of almost every culture's most basic ceremonies]. The first few Games of the modern era had no relay. So where did it come from?
The truth is that Nazi Germany created the ritual, as part of the events leading up to the 1936 Berlin Games. Whatever else can be said about Hitler's empire of madness, let it be noted that it was expert at ritual. It is fair to say that the Chinese have re-mastered the arts of symbolism, of rites and regalia. And lately, I have noticed that America has begun to develop a taste for such presentations, as did ancient Rome. And I wonder what the future will say about the quality of our rituals.