I’m looking forward to seeing the Rio Olympics Opening Games ceremony. Pity it starts at 12am midnight UK time. Nevertheless, being in the semiotics field, I’ll be getting my ‘geek’ on looking at the underlying symbolism of the event.

Every four years, in the so called ‘artistic programme’ proportion of the Olympic Games Opening ceremony – which also contains IOC protocols such as speeches from heads of state, oath taking and various other formalities – host city organizers take on an impossible task. They both need to welcome the world and share something unique about their city and country in a way that pleases their citizens, local stakeholders, International Olympic Committee and a global media.

The Opening Ceremony is a once in a generation chance for a country to project its ‘soft power’ to the world with a captive global audience. It’s a difficult job, considered trivial when it goes right, and condemned as a huge waste of money when it goes wrong.

As I argued in an academic paper in the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics, I believe that planning of these ceremonies often seeks to incorporate assertions of soft power. Soft power as defined by political science scholar Joseph Nye, ”is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies.”

The opening ceremony can be viewed as an attempt to crystallise and to dramatise a nation’s narrative as a soft power tool. So, though Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980 were used by the regimes as shows of militaristic strength, but usually the persuasion is more subtle.

The artistic programme of these games relies rather on symbolic manipulation. This does not mean anything subliminal, coercive or sinister (unless you believe rhetoric and persuasion in and of itself is bad). What I mean is that the mobilising of people and marshalling of resources in the stadium during the ceremony creates meaning for viewers (whether by playing out stories, forming shapes or taking us on a journey). And the skill with which, for instance, the Olympic rings are revealed, or the torch is lit, gives kudos to that host city.

Skillfully weaving stories and crafting cultural symbolism can leave the audience charmed, thrilled, amused or awe struck in a way that leaves them with positive residual impressions about a host country and / or nation. Most opening ceremonies have accessible themes like the use of pristine white clad maidens as innocence and purity cues (*fun fact: they’ve scrapped real doves since a bunch of them were incinerated in the Olympic torch at Seoul 1988), floral motifs as signs of welcome, and of cours mascots (like Misha the bear in Moscow 1980) are deployed to elicit goodwill. Of course, often interwoven into these more universalist cues are more cryptic allusions to obscure episodes in the host country’s history. The Pearly Queens and NHS references would have baffled many overseas in the London 2012 sequence. Likewise Ernie Dingo in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, the konori rope battle in Seoul 1988 and the Mycean frieze parade in Athens 2004. So, (borrowing a concept from Charles Jencks the architectural critic) these ceremonies are essentially double coded: with their content both geared towards instilling pride in the host city’s compatriots and conveying something attractive to the world.

In my paper for the academic journal Social Semiotics (published in 2013) I analysed all Summer Olympic Games Opening ceremonies from Moscow 1980 through to London 2012 and audit them for the ‘soft power’ or geopolitical context leading up to the games, the types of signs they deployed and the main communicative thrust. I suggested that there are 6 broad symbolic manipulation codes consistently deployed by planners of these pageants in order to achieve ‘soft power’ projection. 

These are:

*Mass orchestration

*Technological prowess

*Symbolic ingenuity

*Aesthetic enchantment

*Whimsy and humour

*Musical grandeur

So according to this framework Beijing 2008 and Moscow 1980 majored on mass orchestration, Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000 on aesthetic enchantment, London 2012 on whimsy and humour as well as on musical grandeur. Of course it’s not an exact science and there’s a overlap but its also amazing how recurrent these categories seem to be. It will be interesting to see where Brazil fits. With the rich carnival parade tradition every year at the Sambodrome I’m betting on lashings of aesthetic enchantment with some (batmacumba) musical grandeur too. I’ll reviewing the Opening Ceremony writing up a short piece with my Brazilian colleague Mariane Cara. She’ll be teasing out obscure Brazilian allusions, and I’ll be covering the more general symbolic aspects. Hope to post it up on Monday, so watch this space.

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