At the gates of Buckingham Palace, the handover party crowd waved flags carrying the brand of ceremony sponsor Visa, to the chagrin of the BBC. (Getty)
(ATR) It was a fitting venue to celebrate London taking over from Beijing as Olympic host city: outside Buckingham Palace, where millions of international visitors each year come to see the changing of the guard.
And there, the grand stage proudly displayed a giant Union flag as a back drop as the Handover Party started with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions”. With 19 gold medals safely stashed in the hand luggage of the British team about to return from Beijing in a gold-painted Jumbo jet, for once the Queen anthem’s boast seemed justified.
London has got the Games, and - thanks to the athletes' performances in Beijing - Britain has at last bought into what it means to be Olympic hosts.
Even my taxi driver had bought into the idea that having the Olympics in London might actually be a good thing. “I’ve lived in Stratford all my life,” said the man from a profession that is known for taking curmudgeonliness to Olympian levels, “and I’ve driven my cab for 32 years, and this is the best thing that could happen to us.”
The Handover Party was the first manifestation of the new Olympiad, where much has been made of its cultural ambitions and a desire to be cool and “edgy”. With Keith Khan, LOCOG’s cultural director, set to leave within months, the tone of this event might be instructive.
Yet what was presented here was safe, staid and very middle of the road. More Blue Peter than MTV.
Interspersed with a selection of music acts, celebrities and champions were clumsily interviewed by a couple of lightweight BBC presenters. Beijing medalists Bradley Wiggins and Philips Idowu, Londoners both, got terrific receptions from the crowd of 40,000.
“I’m feeling so much love right now,” said Idowu, the triple jump favorite for who came home with a silver medal.
“London’s going to be crazy. If we’ve got support like this now, it’s going to be amazing in 2012.”
Britons’ sense of sportsmanship and fair play could be useful in four years’ time, and it was demonstrated in the manner that the crowd greeted American swimmer Michael Phelps with the biggest cheer of the day when he promised to return to London in 2012.
While the western media had been critical of aspects of Beijing’s organization, London’s Handover Party demonstrated that even in a European democracy, some things are not so different from communist China.
For one, today offered an echo of Beijing’s fenced-off Olympic Green. The temporary arena outside the Palace, Green Park and The Mall was not open to the public, but accessed only by the ticket holders, all chosen through online ballots and promotional competitions.
And after complaints of unnecessary
Beijing gold medal-meister Michael Phelps promised to be back for the London 2012 Olympics.
militarism at Beijing’s ceremonials, with goose-stepping, jack-booted troops carrying the flag, London laid on a fly past by the RAF jets.
Phelps, for one, did not mind the smoke-streaming aircraft. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. That’s just awesome,” said the 14-time Olympic champion. “That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”
The handover party also prompted LOCOG’s first commercial clash with one of its most important partners, the BBC. The state-funded broadcaster has strict rules on product and brand placement and executives from the Corporation had drawn a very deep line in the sand over the on-screen exposure that party sponsors Visa might receive.
Was this the first example of ambush marketing conducted by an Olympic organizing committee? When you distribute thousands of branded flags, perhaps it is inevitable that a few will be held up prominently to camera, with the sponsor’s logo for the TV audience to see. The organizing PR company - run by the grandson of Sigmund Freud - said that it must have all been sub-conscious.
The goodwill among the British public now is quite tangible, and that was the overwhelming feeling from the event which impressed, rather more than the party's performers.
Memo to Lord Coe: when planning the 2012 Opening Ceremony, and wanting to make it truly “cool“, please don’t invite Scouting for Girls to perform London Calling. It must be The Clash, or nothing.
From Steven Downes in London