On top of each seat at the Opening Ceremonies, a bag of gifts awaited the occupant. Inside the bag, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee had provided its most valued of Olympic guests with a package of tissues, two individual “hand warmers,” a flashlight, a plastic “flute,” an elegant program, a piece of folded up poster board, lip balm and a white thing.
Nobody really knew what the white thing was. It had the texture of a laundry softener sheet, but it was thicker and … well … white. It was folded and placed neatly between the program and the colored poster board. Even though organizers hadn’t scheduled the show to begin for another hour and a half, many of the early arrivals couldn’t resist the temptation to unravel the white thing and check it out.
Those curious investigators then showed the rest of the stadium what it was—a simple white poncho with a hood and no sleeves. And like over-enthusiastic students who read a textbook before it has even been assigned, many of those who had discovered the poncho promptly put it on, grabbing and pulling at the hood so it didn’t chafe their chins. So began the first great uncertainty of a night full of them: Do you put on the poncho now or wait until teacher says?
By the time the crowd leader, an energetic blond woman named Kristen, told everyone to please put on their ponchos, most already had. But a few scrooges held out. Maybe they didn’t want to hide their nice fur coat under a Casper the Ghost costume, or maybe the increasingly cult-like atmosphere of the Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium had frightened them a bit. For it was soon after a brief welcome that Kristen told the crowd to turn its attention to the nearest designated “section leader.” Throughout the night, these authoritarian cheer leaders would prepare everyone to blow into their flute, flip on their flashlights or cover up those broken lips with the complementary Nu Skin lip balm.
Finally it was time for the pre-show performances—the stuff they didn’t show on television. When the local Calvary Baptist Choir walked on stage with the prodigious hip-hop sensation R-Kelly, so began the second great, but only nominally interesting mystery of the night: How could it have possibly begun snowing right as the choir added its voices to the chorus of Mr. Kelly’s song? Was it further proof that yes indeed, SLOC had learned to control the weather? Was God smiling down on the stadium? Or was it merely the frozen fallout from the exhaust of the many helicopters hovering above?
That uncertainty, however perplexing, could not cover up the memory of another, which had planted its seeds of questioning a few minutes earlier. SLOC had asked a hero from New York City, a policeman from the Port Authority named Daniel Rodriguez, to sing “God Bless America” to the crowd. While he began, as the utter silence would indicate, most in the stadium were duly impressed. But there was a question. Is the crowd expected to stand during that song? Like the ponchos, many stood as the song began and without question, the rest quickly followed.
For all the powerful emotions and pride it may invoke, “God Bless America” is not an official anthem. Is it disrespectful to remain seated during the song? But more importantly, should they even be singing it? Assuming the audience believed in a divine being, should they even be asking him to bless one individual country at an event like the Olympics? With the patriotic fervor of this new country, is it even OK to ask such a question?
Pay attention to the crowd leader. The song had barely ended when it was time for the audience to practice flutes and sing a little song. With Kristen leading the way, 52,000 people began singing “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.” As a courtesy, maybe for the foreign guests, the words appeared on the two giant screens on opposite sides of the Olympic Stadium. It was corny, but it was early. And the show was about to begin.
The timing, the drama, the music, the scene—it was all evidence of what human beings have learned about entertainment and awe and how far they’ve come to mastering each. An amalgamation of sport, narrative and history—for every one thing that appeared on television, there were hundreds of other sights only the crowd inside the stadium had the privilege of seeing. The professionalism of the performance only solidified the observation that the portly preamble of the Super Bowl party a week before was nothing more than the detritus of an immature and uneducated America. The show was spectacular, and the crowd was silent—almost as if it were intimidated by the perfection.
Ice skaters rocketed through the production like schools of lightning-fast fish finding their way in a coral reef. And as a large snake weaved in and out of giant blades of grass toward an equally impressive bison, the artistic portrayal of western wildlife was almost too vivid. Not stopping with the peaceful inner celebration of the past it had invoked, the spectacle went further and probably made more than one of the billions of viewers actually nostalgic. With that, another uncertainty stood out. Since stadiums, suburbs and industries had replaced most of those wild creatures and landscapes of the past, will people in the West forever be relegated to enjoying those beautiful images at the mercy of a few talented artists and planners who can recreate it with that sort of brilliance and at that high of a cost?
Finally, it was time to sing “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” for real. The pioneers who were able to conquer that celebrated frontier now had their time in the Olympic spotlight. And when the crowd sang, “She’ll be huffin’ and a puffin’ when she comes,” all the while, a few tried not to giggle at any obviously unintended sexual implications of such a verse. Soon after the song, the section leaders warned their followers that the next audience participation portion of the ceremonies was approaching.
The poster board hidden deep in the bag of goodies now was needed and the tightly packed audience members elbowed their neighbors as they tried to show the appropriate side of the card to the world. “Light the fire within” read the words the audience had created. And one more question emerged: It sounds nice, but what does that mean, anyway?
Surely it meant something. Mitt Romney, Jacques Rogge and President Bush had said so. But weeks earlier, Bush had also said that three nations around the world were part of an axis of evil. Iran was one of them. Evil being a very vivid description, one wondered what they may look like as they came around the corner. Waving to the crowd, the Iranian Olympic team and their flag hardly seemed wicked. Maybe in that scene, one could see the true message of the Olympics. But it’s hard to know. While the organizers presented it to the world as brilliantly as anyone ever has, that message was still as ambiguous as it was vivid.