The Olympic opening ceremonies have become one of our more reliable entertainments, which is surprising once you realize that the event is little more than a highly stylized fever dream. How it trended toward this trippy extravaganza—in which fire-breathers yield to toadstools, which give way to pedal-ships, which are supplanted by tap dancers—is a development better parsed by behavioral scientists than sportswriters. The real question, though, is why, for all the sense it fails to make, it's so wildly satisfying.
Sydney's opening ceremonies, which continued the recent escalation of invention, were another crowd-pleaser, even as they were simultaneously a head-scratcher. For sure, there was a historical framework to them, as organizers laid out the settling of Australia, even acknowledging the Aboriginal influence. With symphonic backing, era after era was enacted on the floor of Olympic Stadium, a cultural choreography tracing the continent's evolution from hardscrabble Aboriginal life right up to modern times, when (with inspired looniness) a flotilla of Aussies stepped from cardboard boxes to begin mowing the turf. It was a humbling and hilariously self-mocking motif, that suburban life might be the point of civilization after all.
But, really, anybody who finds points in opening ceremonies, especially Sydney's, is stretching it. You would have to explain, for example, why 50-foot jellyfish billowed across the ocean (or stadium) floor. Or why, in a supposed homage to the industrial age, 20-foot tin cans rolled out of control. You admired the organizers' refusal to give in to travel-guide stereotypes—no kangaroos here—but you still puzzled over those tap dancers, 1,000 of them, and the guys in the cherry pickers who were synchronizing sparks with their metal grinders.
The overriding purpose of good opening ceremonies—and these certainly were—is not some kind of civics lesson or even (and it's a miracle that host countries resist this as well as they do) a sappy and wrongheaded paean to world unity. It is not a small world after all. We're actually pretty different, if you didn't already get that from the parade of athletes, some of them in blazers, others in sarongs. No, the impression left by proper ceremonies is Olympic one-upmanship, a gorgeous silliness that is actually competitive. Our float (a giant fire-breathing horse that looked as if it came from a monster-truck show) is scarier than yours.
It was a truly spine-tingling moment when, after a series of handoffs that celebrated Australian women in the Olympics, the torch was finally passed to Cathy Freeman, a current athlete who has not only a gold medal pedigree but also Aboriginal origins. This is not an especially fractious country, but the gesture that acknowledged and even honored its roots was goose-bump quality. However, when Freeman climbed the stadium steps, which had turned into a waterfall, when she walked across the instant pond, when she lit an enormous and submerged ring of fire that then ascended the stadium wall along rails to be transformed into a torch—well, you just had to slap your forehead in amazement. Top that.
This is the one Olympic ritual in which the athletes are somewhat secondary, held hostage in the middle of the field and forced to witness three hours of high-wire tomfoolery and acrobatic high jinks. At first you wonder, Is that fair? But then you begin to feel that the whole affair might be instructive, or inspirational, preparation for these next 16 days. Perhaps this balderdash, which so determinedly strives to amaze, imparts a similar ambition to this sea of youth. Perhaps these athletes, now enfolded in the same Olympic fever dream, become convinced of the absolute creativity of competition.
In that case, there would be a point to all this, wouldn't there? Although not one sufficient to explain every little hallucination that is so important to the opening ceremonies convention. Did we mention 1,000 tap dancers?