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Olympics off to a rocking start

Bond, a Beatle and the queen open the GamesBeatle

LONDON – As if on cue, the sunshine disappeared Friday morning and the more familiar gray sky settled over the city just in time for the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. It made the perfect backdrop for the idyllic British pastures that covered the Olympic Stadium infield for the first act of the three-and-a-half-hour, $42 million spectacle.

A television audience of 1 billion and a stadium crowd of 80,000 – including Queen Elizabeth II, royal couple William and Kate, 120 heads of state, and Michelle Obama – watched as the show shifted from what poet William Blake called “England’s green and pleasant land” to the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution to “happy and glorious.”

The extravaganza, the brainchild of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, was as moving as it was entertaining.

It had everything from music by Queen to Queen Elizabeth II making her acting debut in a James Bond flick to a fabulous “Hey Jude” singalong with former Beatle Paul McCartney. The ceremony paid tribute to British history, literature, film and music. It featured stirring choirs from each of the British isles, Shakespeare poetry, 89 farm animals, giant inflatable yellow submarines, synthetic clouds, 32 Mary Poppinses flying into the stadium on umbrellas, 320 hospital beds, and a hilarious “Chariots of Fire” spoof by Rowan (Mr. Bean) Atkinson.

On a night of many surprises, the biggest of all was Queen Elizabeth II parachuting into the ceremony from a helicopter with James Bond actor Daniel Craig. Well, not exactly. It was a four-and-a-half-minute film featuring Her Majesty and Craig getting into a helicopter at Buckingham Palace, and a pair of stunt doubles parachuting into the stadium.

The other well-guarded secret was who would light the cauldron and where. Unlike Olympics past, there was no caldron structure in the stadium. The answer came after midnight. Soccer star David Beckham brought the torch to the stadium by boat from the Tower Bridge.

Sir Steve Redgrave, the Olympic rowing legend, then carried the flame through 500 construction workers who worked on transforming the previously-run down East End into Olympic Park.

Seven British Olympic heroes including decathlete Daley Thompson ran alongside Redgrave and were joined by seven young athletes symbolizing the future. Muhammad Ali then entered to join the ceremony. The young athletes moved to the center of the field and ignited a tiny flame on a copper petal – each of the 204 delegations got one upon entering the stadium. That one flame ignited the 203 others, and created a giant “flame of unity.”

Seven years and $14 billion after winning the bid for these Olympics, Londoners finally got to relax, celebrate and forget – at least for one night – about the traffic disruptions and security concerns.

The ceremony opened with scenes from the British countryside – cottages, farmers tilling the soil, families picnicking, and cricket matches. For those keeping score, there were 40 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, and three sheep dogs. Lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (“The isle is full of noises”) were read by actor Kenneth Branagh.

From there, the mood got darker. Smokestacks rose from the ground, machinery covered the field, and performers were dressed as miners and steelworkers.

The third part of the show began with the entrance of Queen Elizabeth II. That was followed by a tribute to the National Health Service, cherished by Brits, especially as spending has recently been cut. Dancers pushed 320 hospital beds into the stadium and spelled out GOSH (Great Ormond Street Hospital), a children’s hospital to which Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie bequeathed his royalties.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling then read passages from Peter Pan, and Mary Poppinses rained down from the sky on umbrellas.

The show got an injection of humor from actor Atkinson, who showed up unexpectedly in the orchestra and began daydreaming of running in the famous “Chariots of Fire” beach scene.

Music from The Who, Rolling Stones, Beatles and Kinks was featured throughout.

The parade of 204 nations began with Greece, as the Olympic birthplace is always the first to enter the stadium. It ended two hours later with host Great Britain.

The U.S. delegation of 529 wore preppy Ralph Lauren suits that caused some controversy because they were made in China. The flag bearer was fencer Mariel Zagunis – appropriate in this first Olympics ever in which every team includes female athletes.

Other flag bearers included Maria Sharapova (Russia), Usain Bolt (Jamaica), Novak Djokovic (Serbia), Pau Gasol (Spain), and Chris Hoy (Great Britain).

“This is the best feeling any athlete could ever experience in his career,” Djokovic said. “The Opening Ceremony of an Olympic Games only happens every four years and we are alongside other athletes from all around the world, in the best event in the world. I’m representing a whole country and the 115 (Serbian) athletes who came to London.”

Queen Elizabeth II declared the Games open and Rogge said he is “very optimistic” for these Olympics.

“In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” Rogge said.

“This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. The British approach to sport had a profound influence on Pierre de Coubertin, our founder. … Those values will come to life over the next 17 days.”