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Yes, there was a reason for dancing doctors, nurses
SUBTLE SHOWCASE: The Olympics opening ceremony highlighted universal healthcare and other British traditions
WHATEVER you may have thought about the opening ceremony of the London Olympics -- its quirky charm, odd topography, and seemingly off-beat choice of vignettes -- the Danny Boyle production was witty, theatrical and replete with important messages about Britain and its place in the world.
Obviously, Boyle knew that the 2012 effort would be compared, probably unfavourably, to Beijing's over-the-top martial extravaganza executed four years ago to North Korean standards of precision (and about double the cost of London's show) by fellow movie director Zhang Yimou, with all the support the Chinese state could provide.
What was the maker of fantasy film Slumdog Millionaire to do with the odds stacked against him? Be British, very British. But not that stiff upper lip Britishness embodied by the unsmiling octogenarian queen but the more unbuttoned, edgy, even funky Britain of today, over which reigns an octogenarian queen willing to play the role of parachuting Bond Girl.
In doing so, whether intentionally or not, Boyle made some subtle and not-so-subtle points about his nation. In the opening ceremony in Beijing, China stressed its ancient culture and its fresh dynamism which is going to propel it to superpower status.
London offered a counterpoint: the British too have their traditions and old ways and Britain also progressed to become the top dog in the world, leading the world into the Industrial Revolution, with its hustle and bustle, its smokestacks and pollution. (Boyle had the stadium infused with a sulphur smell to give the audience the sense of being in a smelt works.)
But Britain moved on and focused on important aspects of building a civil, gracious and modern society. As long ago as 1948, the British achieved universal healthcare.
It fostered innovation and creativity, nurturing talents such as Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web and then gave it to the world for free. It opened its society to immigrants from all over the world.
And British arts, culture and sport -- represented on the programme by Bond, Bean, Beckham and the Beatles -- have spread across the globe and been embraced by people everywhere.
Many viewers unfamiliar with post-World War 2 British history will likely have thought the hospital bed segment with the children in pajamas and the dancing doctors and nurses to be particularly bizarre. But the narrative was perfectly in sync with the overall message of the evening.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) may have been at least partly behind the tribute to the National Health Service. The IOC has tried (with nobody really paying attention) to underscore the health and fitness aspect of sports to make clear that the Olympic movement is not just about elite athletes performing at their best but is also about inspiring young people to lead active and healthy lives.
The launching of universal healthcare in Britain was a remarkable achievement, especially so soon after the end of World War 2. In 1948, the British were still living with rationing and the days of the empire were numbered.
Yet London still managed to host its second Olympics, an event that had not been held for a dozen years, not since the Games presided over by Hitler and the Nazis. (The 1940 Olympics were supposed to be held in Tokyo but were cancelled.)
Today, neither Britain's successor as world superpower nor China, next-in-line to the United States, has yet to provide its citizens universal healthcare.
No paean to the British health system and the story of healthcare in the UK would have been complete without a reference to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, to which J.M. Barrie bequeathed the rights to his play Peter Pan and other works. Hence the opening ceremony segue from hospitalised children on glowing beds to the great villains of British literature.
Boyle's show wound up with what many thought was an anti-climax: seven young athletes of no fame lighting the cauldron, followed by a sing-along of Hey Jude led by Paul McCartney.
Two points were clear: first, the world should look to the future, the young people, and be led by them. (If 83-year-old Roger Bannister had lit the flame, as had been widely rumoured, the message would have been quite different and far less evocative.)
And second, in the midst of the competition and all the challenges the world faces, we all have to come together in the end and "begin to make it better". Such a plea for harmony and the informality of a group sing are normally reserved for the closing ceremony when the athletes are meant to mingle, no longer separated according to national teams.
At the end of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, the coming together of athletes from 204 nations and territories all singing the same song was so stirring a moment that McCartney choked up and could barely sing the first line of a song he wrote. Is there a Chinese song to which everybody in the house could have sung along?