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Olympic Studies Centre illuminates Lighting Ceremonies

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The new online course “The Olympics and the Media” from Coursera is cocncluding this month with a look at how Olympic ceremonies build value for the Olympic brand. They also help achieve ambitious goals for inspiration by encouraging each local Olympic organizing committe to be more innovative. The latest couse assignment from the Olympic Studies Centre at the University of Barcelona prompted many thoughts on this subject. Here are two case examples:

The opening ceremonies and lighting of the Olympic cauldron at the 2012 London Summer Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics continued great traditions. At the same time, these special events presented memorable media spectacles. The local organizing committees had different visions for presenting the spectacles that allowed each to achieve success by following different paths to success.

Both London 2012 and Sochi 2014 made tributes to national sports heroes a centerpiece of the staging of these dramatic events. In 2014, Russian athletes Vladislav Tretyak and Irina Rodnina were the final torch bearers who took the Olympic flame toward the main cauldron. Tretyak was a hockey goaltender who participated in many international championships from 1969 to 1984. He is honored in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada. Irina Rodnina was the only figures pair skater to win 10 successive World Championships and is now serving as a good role model for Olympic athletes pursuing second careers in politics.

The visual impact of the five foot tall Rodnina accompanying Tretyak’s six foot stature sent an important message about the Olympic goal of inclusiveness. It is a simple fact of life that tall athletes have a natural advantage in many sports such as volleyball and basketball. That is a good reason that the Olympics also includes sports like gymnastics, figure skating, diving and taekwondo in which athletes who are below average height often excel.

The Sochi 2014 organizing committee made strong media relations a high priority for encouraging positive coverage of the 2014 Olympic games and their presentation. NBC Olympics correspondent Maria Sharapova was one of the first of the torchbearers inside Fisht Olympic Stadium in the dramatic buildup to the 2014 cauldron lighting.

The Sochi 2014 organizing committee also developed a thematic unity in the Olympic cauldron lighting ceremony that achieved the highest artistic standards. This helped to make it an impressive spectacle at the time of the ceremony itself. And tis artistic vision also helped to make the lighting ceremony its own chapter in the history of the performing arts. The iconic torch design itself was inspired by and replicated the legendary “Firebird.” The Firebird is both part of Russian folklore and a world class ballet by Igor Stravinsky. Both the story and the staging feature motifs of fire and ice, motifs that carried through the entire ceremony and were reinforced by the musical score of the Firebird ballet. The cauldron itself emulated the wings of the magical Firebird taking flight. The motifs of fire and ice were not just artistically dazzling. These motifs were good matches for the energy expended by the Olympic athletes in achieving their feats and the wintry landscapes that surrounded the Sochi region.

London 2012 did not have a similar goal of artistic unity and chose a format using the Olympic ceremonies as a platform for artistic originality. The musical score for the cauldron lighting ceremony was a world premiere. Entitled “Caliban’s Dream,” it was performed by the Underworld ensemble. London 2012 also took a different path to presenting the Olympic ideal of inclusiveness in the buildup to the lighting ceremony. 1960 Boxing gold medalist Muhammed Ali helped to bridge generations in the athlete population, running the course at the age of 60. David Beckham, who is popular in his home country of Great Britain and lives in the United States, also relayed the torch on the way to lighting the cauldron as a living symbol of the globalization of sports and the growing community of “athletes without borders.” The actual cauldron lighting was a team effort by seven British teenage athletes. This image did not emphasize artistic unity the way that Sochi 2014 ceremonies did, but it did achieve thematic unity with the 2012 Summer Olympic Games motto, “Inspire a New Generation.”

Both the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 lighting ceremonies balanced sponsor support with artistic integrity. Coca-Cola sponsored the torch relays of both Olympics and registered many of its own employees from many different divisions of the company to run segments of the relay. But once the Olympic torch was inside the Olympic stadiums in both 2012 and 2014, the Olympic flame was presented with pure artistry, free of any commercial images.

Both the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 lighting ceremonies also emphasized a fundamental artistic concept that unified these contemporary ceremonies with the ancient Olympics and with the essence of artistic competition. That is to build the ceremony design around the theme of motion. This is much easier said than done. Many staged events present a series of static images best suited for magazine cover photos. Many Olympic sports podium medal ceremonies are good examples of this type of static image. Keeping a large team of participants in motion with precision in a way that engages an audience requires meticulous choreography. Superb choreography that achieves the artistic ideal of portraying motion is difficult enough for ballet companies that rehearse together all year long. The ceremony planners compensated for the unavailability of the athletes lighting the Olympic cauldron to rehearse together often by building upon a unifying talent of elite athletes. That is their ability to synchronize rhythm and movement to achieve precision movements in large public stadiums in front of large and sometimes unpredictable audiences.

Both the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 lighting ceremony concepts struck a balance between presenting visual spectacles and accommodating over 100 different broadcasters with different equipment, different editing systems and very different audiences. They also needed to present front page quality images for still photographers working together with print publications. In both cases, this “all things to all people” requirement relied on the sharpest possible contrasts between the brilliant lighting and subsequent fireworks and the nighttime sky. In London, this also resulted in physical discomfort for athletes and spectators who were drenched by rain in an Olympic Stadium where only a small set of box seats were shielded from the rain. From a technical perspective, the rains that accompanied the London 2012 lighting ceremony were an important reminder that television producers need to make advance plans for a variety of scenarios, including unfavorable weather, to maintain high quality during live broadcasts.

The memorable images of cauldron lighting ceremonies at both the London 2012 Summer Olympics and 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have made valuable contributions towards the Olympic movement in the future. They have presented time tested techniques for generating an iconic media spectacle. At the same time, these presentation concepts demonstrate that there are many paths to success and ample room for original ideas to keep images of Olympic events fresh and full of vitality.

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