How To Attract Publics & Influence States

News & Opinion on how countries are aiming to utilise 'Soft Power', 'Public Diplomacy' and 'Nation Branding'

Oh Danny Boy – The impact of the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Seven years after the awarding of the 2012 Olympic Games, and over five years of preparation, the thirtieth (30th) Olympiad is finally underway, for sixteen days of top sporting action.

However, as the profile of the Games has exponentially increased over the years, the Games is no longer seen purely as a celebration of the best of sport, but also a celebration of the host country, a communication exercise intended to increase a country’s ‘soft power’ and relative standing within the international arena. Invariably they are public relations instruments; tools used in ‘public diplomacy’. They are occasions on which to improve the image of a country, to communicate old and new values, traditions, history and goals.

As with previous Olympic hosts, Britain planned to utilise their hosting in 2012 along same lines. From Britain’s viewpoint, London 2012 was to be used “as a catalyst for changing perceptions of the UK worldwide”, with clear objectives in inviting foreign audiences to take a fresh and positive look at the UK, promoting British culture and values, while displaying Britain as a vibrant and open society. However, while Britain’s hosting was meant to be a celebration; an exercise in ‘public diplomacy’ of how “Great” Britain actually is, the weeks prior to the start of the Games there were fears that it would not quite go to plan as Britain’s hosting was widely derided and beset with ‘public diplomacy’ “gaffes”. From the US Presidential Mitt Romney doubting Britain’s appetite for hosting such an event, to the security scandal surrounding G4S, questions over the £9 billion cost to the British public purse and doubts creeping in over Sebastian Coe’s legacy proposals it looked at points that hosting would backfire’ that it would lead to negative perceptions and diminish rather than advance British ‘soft power’.

By the time the opening ceremony ended, the plan to utilise the Olympics as a giant ‘public diplomacy’ and communication exercise was back on track. The pre-Olympic “gaffes” have now been consigned to history and the talk of the city and indeed the world is Danny Boyle’s extravagant ceremony, which truly celebrated the best of Britain.

The Apothesis of Olympic Public Diplomacy

The opening ceremony to some is seen as the “apothesis of Olympic public diplomacy”, as the Olympic tradition represents a “concentration of features, qualities and messages” which are culturally specific and universal. It is a spectacle that aims to “challenge, educate and entertain audiences”. With its worldwide audience – the 2012 opening ceremony was expected to draw an audience of 1 billion – it represents a significant moment in a country’s hosting of the Olympics to “showcase to the world” its magnificence; a huge platform on which to communicate with the rest of the world.

Coming after the extravagance of Beijing 2008 and the scale and expense lavished in the Birds Nest Stadium, following in the footsteps of China was always going to provide a huge dilemma. Due to the recession and Britain’s standing within international relations, there was a feeling that Britain could not compete on the size and scale. There was a risk that if they did it would cause unlimited damage to Britain’s brand image and reputation as it would fail to meet expectations and confirm it status as a worthy Olympic host. Instead Britain decided, quite rightly not to compete, but to use the opening ceremony quite literally as a “catalyst for changing perceptions of the UK”.

“Brilliant, breathtaking, bonkers and utterly British”

Described as a “masterpiece” by the Times newspaper and “brilliant, breathtaking, bonkers and utterly British”, Britain utilised the opening ceremony to present itself to the world, giving a “vibrant picture of [the country’s] rich heritage and culture”. With its combination of the “Queen” arriving at the ceremony with James Bond and a helicopter jump, Mr Bean playing Chariots of Fire, dancing nurses amid a celebration of the NHS, it was as one Chinese newspaper put it an “eccentric and exuberant celebration of British history, art and culture”. It was a combination of “spectacle, irreverence, humour, great theatricality and enough emotional touch-points”. The lengthy sequence whereby two teenagers, Frankie and June, embarked on a dizzying love story, searching for each other through the decades of popular music perfectly encapsulated the ceremonies aim of combining and capturing “humour, romance and youthful exuberance”, while the latter was again picked up with the lighting of the flame. Instead of a current single athlete lighting the flame, seven young, up and coming athletes; each nominated by a famous British Olympian were chosen symbolising the aim of a new, young, generation of athletes. This is particularly important as Britain tries to distance itself from its old, stuffy image that has been found to exist.

There has been a hope within the FCO that the Olympics would help Britain enhance its role and image within the world, displaying that not only is it a modern island, but one that retains great tradition and heritage; a history, values and culture to be proud of. All were on display in Stratford, as the £27 million creation helped to “challenge, educate and entertain audiences, promoting British culture and values, most prominently in film, music and literature. Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” encapsulated British economic and social development from its rural economy to the Industrial Revolution, before moving onto the technological revolution that Britain with the invention of the World Wide Web was and still is at the forefront of.

While the Conservative MP Aidan Burley described it as “multicultural crap”, the opening ceremony did justice to recognising British diversity and the contribution of minorities, highlighting that Britain is truly a ‘world city’. Choirs signing the unofficial anthems of the four nations; Jerusalem (England), Danny Boy (Northern Ireland), Bread of Heaven (Wales) and Flower of Scotland (Scotland) helped to involve the four nations that compose the United Kingdom and ensure that it is seen as not just London’s Olympics, but a British Olympics. As Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper described it; the message was “what a past, you country should be so lucky”.

Following a pre-show entertainment programme that included a Red Arrows flypast and a performance of Frank Turner, there was a fast-paced journey which showed Britain’s astonishing cultural heritage. From Ratty and Mole, village cricket, a Pink Floyd pig, real-life Chelsea Pensioners, a group of Pearly Kings and Queens, featuring it really was a celebration of Britishness.

One of the central themes was indeed Britain’s contribution to music, literature and film. Clips from British films including Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, and television shows such as Coronation Street and literary characters such as Lord Voldemort, Captain Hook, Cruella de Vill, the Child Catcher, the Queen of Hearts all featuring. This was all played against a soundtrack that included the theme tune of Eastenders, London Calling by the Clash and the Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen, while further music came from The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Prodigy, Dizzee Rascal, Mike Oldfield, the Arctic Monkeys and Paul McCartney, who played a rendition of “Hey Jude” to conclude the ceremony.

Overall, the ceremony was quirky, it has its wow moments, it was educating and a celebration, but above all it was “weirdly British”. After the huge display of power from Beijing in 2008, Britain were never going to be able to compete in size, but what Danny Boyle did was celebrate its heritage and tradition; proving to the world that it isn’t a new emerging power, but one that has been around for decades and can still retain a key place in the world. A country that has contributed and continues to contribute so much. It was a showcase to show everyone what Britain is about. A great tribute; a great celebration and in some assertions a more powerful statement than Beijing as it exuded ‘self-confidence and soft power’, as it celebrated culture rather than hard power as in China. Now we have just got to hope the actual sport does not disappoint.


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