A Formal Goodbye to Two Wonderful Weeks of Olympic Action
There was no formal ceremony in the stadium at London’s first Olympic Games in 1908; instead there was a closing banquet at Holborn and Organising Committee chairman Lord Desborough was received with wild applause. Since then, the closing of the Games has developed a ritual all of its own.
In 1948, the last time the Games was held in London, it ended on a sunlit evening following the final event, the Grand Prix show jumping.
As many of the competitors had already departed, the flagbearers were boy scouts.
A message from Organising Committee chairman Lord Burghley flashed on the scoreboard: “The Spirit of the Olympic Games which has tarried here awhile, sets forth once more. May it prosper throughout the world, safe in the keeping of all those who have felt its noble impulse in this great Festival of Sport.”
The ceremonial handover flag, rediscovered in a Berlin bank vault at the end of the war, was trooped in by the Scots Guards and handed to Sir Frederick Wells, the Lord Mayor of London, for safekeeping until Helsinki 1952.
In 1956 an innovation was suggested by a Chinese-Australian boy. He’d watched the formality of the Melbourne 1956 Opening Ceremony and wrote in to suggest a change. The Games had been dubbed “The Friendly Games” and his letter to the Organising Committee began: “Dear Friend”. His letter found its way to the Organising Committee chairman Wilfrid Kent Hughes and had immediate resonance.
The letter read: “The march I have in mind is different from the opening and will make the Games even greater… War politics and nationality will be forgotten what more could anyone want if the world could be made as one nation? They must not march but walk freely and wave to the public. When they stop they should be given three cheers.”
The 1956 Organising Committee acted quickly and Wing’s idea was taken up. It is now common practice at every Closing Ceremony.
In Rome in 1960, the farewell to the athletes was accompanied by a spontaneous gesture by the crowd who set light to their programmes as the Flame itself died.
In those days, the city which had just staged the Games kept the handover flag for the next four years, but in 1984 this arrangement was altered; now the city which is about to host the Games holds the flag for the preceding four years. The flag itself, originally given to the Olympic Movement by Antwerp, was replaced with a new banner of Korean silk; this is the flag which has spent the last four years in City Hall in London.
As part of this handover the next Olympic city now has eight minutes to introduce itself to the world. In 1984 The Seoul City dance company performed at the closing and in 2000 we had the priestesses from Olympia who danced in an ethereal blue light. They tossed olive branches into the Olympic Flag as it was trooped from the stadium.
London 2012 Organising Committee chairman Seb Coe had his own role in 1984. He was chosen to bear the British flag at the stadium during the Closing Ceremony, which featured Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long and lasted almost as long.
Sometimes, though, the handover can go wrong. Sydney’s Kangaroos on bicycles prompted ridicule in Atlanta 1996 and, of course, the London bus and David Beckham’s misdirected kick into the crowd did seem a little out of place against the splendour of Beijing’s efforts. In neither case did this prove an omen for the Games itself. The focus will now be on Rio’s handover as the Brazilian city looks forward to 2016.
The closing is often a celebration but in 1980 then IOC President Lord Killanin made an impassioned plea to “Unite in Peace before the holocaust descends” as he closed the Moscow Games.
The United States stayed away as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its Government refused to allow the Stars and Stripes to be flown at the ritual of the three flags, when the flag of Greece, and the present and future hosts are always hoisted. Instead it was arranged for the flag of Los Angeles to be raised.
But perhaps the funniest moment at any closing came in Montreal in 1976. We had the chiming of the clocks in Red Square anticipating the Games in Moscow to come and an unscheduled participant in the dancing which followed the formal closure of the Games. As one dignitary observed “he was not wearing his accreditation”. Or, for that matter, anything else!
Philip Barker, one of the world’s most renowned sports historians, is the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley Publishing recently. Barker, who carried the Olympic torch in 1996, has worked as a television journalist for 25 years. This blog first appeared in Insidethegames.biz, which is a blog published by the British Olympic Association. This article is reprinted here with permission of the blog editors.