This photograph at the top of this page captures, as best might be accomplished with static media, another of the Moments of Which I am Most Proud in the personal history of Moments and Experiences I have been granted the opportunity of creating.
Question: What is one of our favorite parts of Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games? Seeing Team America enter the stadium in the Parade of Nations.
Another Question: What is one of our least favorite parts of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games? That might be watching every single Team of the Parade of Nations enter the stadium.
It’s part of the program both highly anticipated while being almost as deeply dreaded: thousands of athletes parading into the stadium, one after the other, encircling the stadium then taking their seats for the remainder of the Ceremonies.
Two hours? Two-and-a-half? More…?
For the 1994 Gay Games Opening Ceremonies in New York City (“Unity ’94”), we came up with the idea of, rather than having the procession encircle the field, having the Parade of Athletes March right down the center of Columbia University’s Wien Stadium, North to South. Then, as each arrived at the South goalposts, teams would alternate turning right or left, circling back to take their seats at the edge of the field.
Spectators got to see their team enter and parade down the field, then half the audience got a second, closer look as the athletes passed closer, and we got 12,000 athletes into the stadium and seated in a record 75 minutes. I think we were onto something, here…
Twelve years later, in 2006, we had the chance to do even better with the Opening Ceremonies in Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Worldwide, historically and inherently, these Olympic-style, sports stadium ceremonies have the potential to be magnificent, moving, powerful spectacle of the highest, most resonant and exhilarating order. On the other hand, they also have the propensity to be cumbersome, protracted, over-speeched and boring.
While we were intent on moving things along, we kept at the forefront of our minds the fact that these ceremonies are for and about the Athletes, and that the Athletes are both the focus and the stars of the event, as well as being entitled to fully enjoy their presence and participation in such a Ceremony.
So, our perspective was that the Procession of the Athletes had to take place as near to the very first Moment of the Ceremonies as possible.
How to do that and do it both efficiently and effectively without shortchanging the athletes, and to create an indelible Moment in the process?
There was no rehearsal time. Virtually all of the athletes arrive in town the day before if not the day of Opening Ceremonies. This means anything done must be well-conceived, well-planned, fully thought-through and staffed for successful execution. We had an extremely tight budget with a small army of committed, intelligent volunteers and a darn good idea.
So, here’s how it played out…
A stage was built across the entire North End Zone of the Field; 40 yards wide. Across the broad, 100-yard expanse of the field, in the South End Zone, the unlit cauldron awaited the athletes, the ceremonies, the ultimate lighting…
The teams, rather than entering the stadium in columns to parade around the track, instead entered in shoulder-to-shoulder rows of up to that 40 yards each. Bursting through a slit-mylar curtain, each team was “revealed” to the audience in total, all at once. (Though there were some teams so large that they took several rows to fully enter).
At the moment of entry, the eyes of every person in the stadium were on that team; I dare say significantly more so than at any time after the first team enters in the traditional staging of the Parade of Nations. Each team had That Moment when all eyes were on them. The spotlight was all theirs.
Then, successively, each team moved forward, onto the field and continued to parade across toward the other end, waving and cheering; owning the field. As the teams reached the far end — or, as that filled, as near to it as they could get — they effectively filled the space, “Tetris”-style.
All the athletes knew in advance was that they were to be handed a light on a lanyard as they arrived on the field, and would be participating in a “light stunt” at the close of the Processional and the Administering of the Oath to the Athletes. They did not know what that stunt would be, nor did the audience have any inkling that there would even be a stunt.
The athletes were told to “light up” the moment the house went dark.
So, as they arrived at their positions, they were met by one of six teams of volunteers, each distributing a different-colored light. Organized in their own columns, each column had a specific color and was guided by barely-visible, hand-held rope barriers that unfurled as the athletes who were to mask their presence with their bodies gathered. This way, the lights were kept separate so as to read as panels when they were activated, on cue.
The Athletes Procession was complete in 47 minutes. (Yes, 11,000 athletes entered in Procession in 47 minutes; an “Olympic” record by at least half.) This is the World Record of which I spoke…
The Procession began before the sun began to set with the stadium lights already on so that darkness would be a surprise when those lights were extinguished, and this plan worked. They entered, gathered, were given their led’s, and were led in the Athlete’s Oath by sports icon, Dave Kopay. As the last words of the Athlete’s Oath were given voice…
“In these Games I have no rivals, only comrades in Unity…”
The House went dark, the lights came on and the audience went nuts as a football field-sized, electronic Pride Flag appeared before them, filling the floor of the stadium. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word.
The explosion of exhilaration and energy was almost overwhelming. The surprise of the audience as they saw what was before them elicited to-their-feet cheering. Then, as that first roar began to peak, the eyes of the athletes on the field could see via the iMag screens what they had created and went even wilder with that realization. This, quite literally, stopped the show.
As though that weren’t enough, as the athletes realized what they’d made, they began to swirl their lanyards. I wish that I could say that this had been envisioned, but the lanyards were part of planning for so many who’d be in sports gear and possibly pocketless.
When they began swirling the lights, it was breathtaking; as though the stadium were awash in living, liquid light. My production manager and I ran from the booth to the field in order to stand in it, walk through it, to cheer and hug other athletes and to immerse ourselves in the most immersive of spectacles I’d experienced.
In retrospect, these are excellent examples of some of the things I’ve been talking about;
- Liberating Preconception and Comfortable Disorientation with the reconfiguring of the Procession
- Successive Revelation of the Athletes as they entered, with the filling of the Field, and finally with the reveal of the flag to the audience, then to the athletes.
So Powerful, the Experience. So Proud to have been successful. So Grateful for that memory.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”