2008 Olympic Observations, Part 1: The Secret of Great Events
2008 Olympic Observations, Part 1:
By Gail S. Bower
The Secrets of Great Events
Have you ever been to an event that, simply described, just makes you aspirate, "Wow!"?
You know when event or festival attendees are having this experience. They're looking up and around to take it all in. They're smiling, and their eyes light up. You can sense a physical and emotional change happening. They're leaving behind their own worlds--the lives they each live, filled with whatever joy and suffering it holds in that moment--to join you in the new world, the parallel universe, you've created for them.
Several of my clients and I have been exploring this sensation this summer: What makes a "wow" event? How do we replicate it? Why would this experience for event-goers be an important component of an event strategy?
The Opening and Closing Ceremonies of this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing came along just in time. Quintessential "wow" events, this year's Ceremonies were created by Chinese film director Zhang Yimou and a team of artists (Jennifer Wen Ma), choreographers (Shen Wei), and event designers (Mark Fisher, chief designe) from around the world.
Certainly we can say that exploding fireworks creates a "wow." Grand spectacles, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies used technology and fireworks--invented by the Chinese in the 12th Century and first used to scare off evil spirits--in a sensory overload. But that's not the kind of wow I'm talking about.
These events were emotionally moving, uplifting, and engaging because they had three key ingredients: they offered deep meaning, revelation about a subject, and celebration.
The original intention of the Olympic Games was to provide a forum in which we can set aside our differences, offer truces, come together, and celebrate human achievement through athletic competition. Quite a goal.
What's more astounding is that this ideal infuses and inspires every Olympic competition, even when countries have boycotted.
The Opening Ceremony, then, is the ritual event that invokes this greater goal, which allows us as athletes, spectators, and dignitaries to move out of our real worlds and come together in this new space. Mr. Zhang and his creative team used 2,008 drummers and 2,008 tai chi performers moving in unity, the latter while collectively forming a nearly perfect circle; the unfurling of a scroll, a blank sheet; and performers "walking" on the planet. Together, these elements symbolically underscored the deep meaning of the Olympic Games. Let's set aside our strife and conflict. Let's come together to honor human greatness.
Events should provide a window into the world of the host. Mr. Zhang's choice of colors, performances, themes, and imagery revealed the past and future of China. In an interview with the New York Times, Jennifer Wen Ma, chief visual and special effects designer, said the creative team hoped to "explore the fundamentals of Chinese philosophy and aesthetics" but in a "contemporary and modern way."
We experienced Peking Opera, Chinese storytelling and calligraphy, and the dress of the 56 ethnic groups of China. We learned about China's maritime past and its aeronautical aspirations. And we saw a snapshot of the importance of balance and harmony as these concepts influence cultural and artistic expression.
During the Closing Ceremony, the transition segment from Beijing to London, host of the next Summer Games in 2012, was a little less graceful. London's offering was a clunky hodgepodge, making the production by Mr. Zhang and his colleagues appear even more elegant.
An Aside: Were you as embarrassed as I for the Mayor of London who ambled across the dramatic ceremonial stage with his ill-fitting suit jacket unbuttoned? (Somebody, get him 007's tailor!) He seemed a nervous wreck, unsure what to do, where to stand, and whose hand to shake next. Did he miss the rehearsal? If you're responsible for producing an event that involves dignitaries and ceremony, especially when there's an international TV audience, remember to review protocol. Require a rehearsal. Don't let the cast of characters who tell your story, explicitly or symbolically, bumble through.
Then, after all that good stuff of the Opening Ceremony, we saw the Parade of Nations. Overwhelmed, nervous, unsure young athletes from each of the world's participating countries entered the stadium representing their nations. After their first few minutes of shock, the anxiety transformed to excitement as they each realized that we were there to celebrate them. We'd ceremonially cleared the world's decks to come together to watch each "thrill of victory" and "the agony of defeat." (Yeah yeah, I'm mixing metaphors. That's the old Wide World of Sports TV show, forerunner to ESPN.)
The Closing Ceremony's parade has historically been just as formally arranged, according to NBC announcers, until a young participant suggested that they allow the athletes to enter the stadium en masse, rather than by nation. Organizers accepted the suggestion, and it worked. The proud procession revealed new friendships, a sense of camaraderie, respect, and, of course, sheer delight in each other's and their own accomplishments.
Speaking of accomplishments, it's no small feat to weave these three elements into every event without an Olympic budget. For big or small events, let this be your challenge. Move us emotionally, touch our hearts, show us who you are and why celebrating with you is worth our investment. Let the Games begin!