Last week, along with about a billion other viewers, I watched the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in London. Though not as spectacular or grand as the Beijing opening in 2008, the event was still a hit.
Was the mix of global British icons — Mr. Bean, Bond, Becks, the Bard and the Beatles — along with more domestic political favorites like the National Health Service and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Industrial Revolution civil engineer, perhaps an attempt to remind the audience of a time when the British produced more than celebrities and financial scandals?
Whatever the case, the entire $45 million event proved that the British, under the inspired direction of Danny “Slumdog Millionaire” Boyle, and despite an imploding economy, still have the resources — and more importantly the depth of character and humor — to put on a splendid show.
For me, the highlight was Queen Elizabeth II and Daniel Craig’s James Bond being tossed out of a helicopter over Olympic Stadium. I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying the sight of a head of state revealing that she (in this case) doesn’t take herself too seriously.
From the perspective of national branding, the opening ceremony conveyed an image of the United Kingdom as a country rich in history, shot through with creativity plus a strong dose of 21st-century irony — essentially depicting it as a highly attractive, fun destination with a cosmopolitan global city as its capital.
Given the night’s success, one can only imagine how the Brazilians will plan their opening in Rio de Janeiro in four years’ time. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that the football World Cup will also be hosted by Gisele Bundchen’s home country in 2014.
And it’s at this point that Indonesians need to think a great deal more seriously about the Olympic movement because Brazil, with its 180 million-strong population, its vast natural resources and $2.469 trillion economy, should really be Indonesia’s benchmark in terms of “soft power” and influence.
The Indonesian Olympic team in London is 22 strong, whereas the Brazilians sent 287. Even Singapore sent 23.
I was really concentrating on the procession of nations, but I almost missed the Indonesians walk by during the opening ceremony, whereas the mini-skirted, scarf-toting and jacket-wearing Brazilians were among the most exuberant and colorful.
For the record, even Thailand, with a contingent of 37, outnumbered Asean’s giant. Thankfully, despite the small number of participants, weightlifters Triyatno and Eko Yuli Irawan have shown the way, winning silver and bronze medals in their respective categories.
It’s also worth noting that the Indonesian government has actually been lavishing substantial amounts of money on sports. Moreover, there’s an enormous degree of popular support and general interest in all forms of physical activity, from cycling to football, badminton and running.
In the past decade alone, two large sports facilities — one in Jakabaring, Palembang, and the other in Hambalang, Bogor, are estimated to have cost $450 million and $265 million, respectively.
Given the immense cost of these projects, and probably to no one’s surprise, both projects have become the subject of intense debate, scrutiny and scandal. Worse still, two buildings at Hambalang collapsed in May, raising fundamental questions about their construction.
Like it or not, sports are no longer mere entertainment. Sports have become a platform for nations to distinguish themselves as players or hosts. With the Olympics, we see how cities (and their countries), like Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000, are able to use the Games to project their image globally.
Indonesia needs to improve its game. The Brazilians will be setting the pace from here on.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.