Watching the Beijing final ceremony today, I was struck by the fact that the London portion of the show was a drop in the ocean compared to the extravagance and showbiz hype of the Chinese production.
Then I realized that the British, in their quaint and understated way, were making a big statement. I think they were saying: "We are comfortable in our own skin, we don't need to prove anything to the world."
The Brits rolled out an iconic red double-decker London bus (although someone lost their nerve a bit and failed to make it an old smoke belching model so beloved by Londoners and tourists), and a small British dance troupe began acting out a typical morning commute in London, i.e., an everyone-for-yourself scrum to get on the bus.
It was an endearing scene to anyone who has muttered this Shakespearean line to themselves at a crowded bus stop: "Once more into the breech, dear friends."
Unlike the Chinese government, which shut down much of Beijing's industry to create a false sense that the skies are blue, the London show featured many umbrellas, as if to say: "Don't kid yourself, it's going to rain on you, it's a tradition to get soaked in London, and you'll have a great time, anyway."
In other words, in a way that many outsiders so often don't get, the British, it seems to me, were mocking Chinese hypocrisy. But you won't find it in the British playbook. The British can be so subtle, that when they say you are interesting, they probably mean that you are brash.
On top of the red bus, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page cut loose with riffs that reminded the world that his British band was a pioneer in cultural anarchy and rebellion. That kind of challenge to authority and tradition is something the ruling Chinese Communist Party has never been wild about, or tolerated.
For a few seconds in the show, a young British girl walked across a black and white striped matt that all Brits know as a zebra crossing. It is where a pedestrian has the absolute right to step out into the road in the path of speeding cars, trucks and buses, and the drivers MUST stop. The zebra crossing is iconic of the rights of the individual being greater than larger forces.
Ironically, zebra crossings are decreasing in number because more and more drivers are flaunting that principle and that law. Many Brits claim it is because of the influx of foreigners. So, nothing seems straightforward in London.
When British soccer star David Beckham popped up through the bus roof, the Beijing stadium crowd went wild. He is hugely popular in China, for his talent, and for his extremely profitable endorsement of sports kit. Beckham, who only stood there and kicked a ball into the crowd, was proof that western celebrities are now a cultural and economic force inside China.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, in a statement to British reporters, said all the correct things about how spectacular the Chinese Games were, but added that, even with half the Beijing budget, "I think that with British ingenuity, wit, and all the rest of it -- resourcefulness -- we are going to produce a games, opening ceremony, closing ceremony and everything in between that will be, in our own sweet way, just as fantastic."
And Johnson could not resist some British style humour, almost right out of "Monty Python."
He said, tongue very much in cheek, "I say this respectfully to our Chinese hosts who have excelled magnificently at ping-pong, ping-pong was invented on the dining tables of England."
He added, with his voice rising in mock oratory, "I say to the Chinese, I say to the world, ping-pong is coming home."
Ping-pong may be coming home, but it is coming to what is now a construction site in east London. The 2012 London Olympic Park had a budget of around $6 billion in 2005, but that has now exploded to $18 billion. Johnson has pledged to hold the line on any more spending of tax payers' money. Can you imagine the Chinese government having to do that in Beijing, despite the economic hardships of many citizens there?
Don't expect a Beijing-style show in 2012. Is that bad?