Sport and showbusiness: bigger, brighter, louder

The Olympics are almost upon us, and it's not just the athletes who will be going for glory. Guy Adams explores the lucrative world of the men who create sport's ever more extravagant opening ceremonies
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The Independent Online

Say what you like about China, its human rights record, or even the karmic implications of its policy towards Tibet; you can't fault the country's ability to put on a show. On 8 August, Beijing's new National Stadium will host what's being confidently billed as the greatest public spectacle in the history of mankind: the opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games.

There will, we are told, be bicycles, flying acrobats, dancing dragons, and giant pandas. For three hours, a crowd of 100,000 will be entertained by more performers than the entire cast of Ben-Hur. Between two and three billion will watch on television, and seats are currently changing hands for between £5,000 and £15,000 on eBay.

According to the show's director, the Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou, proceedings will simmer towards their climax at 11pm, when 35,000 fireworks will turn the "bird's nest" stadium into a cauldron of pink, white, orange and red. Finally, an intense barrage of pyrotechnics will fill the night sky with 2008 smiling faces, representing the cheery people of today's world.

The event, Yimou said following last week's dress rehearsal, will be "technically very demanding". Tens of thousands of performers, who have all signed confidentiality agreements, are "praying for good weather". And it is hoped that local restaurants will remember that all those dogs they've just been forced to take off the menu should be safely locked indoors.

Yet for all the razzmatazz, one of the biggest stars of this Greatest Show on Earth will be invisible to the world. His name is Ric Birch, and he'll most likely be watching from the sidelines with a security pass around his neck. It will bear the Mandarin equivalent of "Access All Areas" and quietly announce a pertinent truth: Ric Birch is the most important Olympian you've probably never heard of.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Birch has produced, directed or otherwise pulled strings on the majority of memorable ceremonies for major global events. He was at Los Angeles in 1984, Barcelona in 1992, and Sydney in 2000; he did the Commonwealth Games in 1982, and the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006. His firm, Spectak Productions, has offices in Los Angeles, Milan and Sydney and bills itself "the world's pre-eminent major events producer".

This year, Birch, a low-profile, middle-aged Australian, is consultant to Beijing, and (though Yimou is its public face) is the man who, according to those in the know, really masterminded the coming ceremony. He is first among equals in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of superstar event impresarios, alongside such visionaries as Yves Pepin, Peter Minshall, and Don Mischer.

Though far from famous (their trade is below-the-radar and occasionally secretive) these four men – often working in collaboration with each other as well as with local organisers – have brought to the world some of the most memorable spectacles of the past 25 years. For them nothing, no feat of synchronised human theatre or dance routine involving tens of thousands of amateur volunteers, has ever been impossible.

Sometimes they work together; occasionally alone. Their job is to provide technical expertise, and big event experience to assist the event's lead visionary, who is often a film director or musician from the host city.

In Barcelona, Birch and Minshall recreated a map of the Mediterranean Sea on the floor of the Olympic Stadium, using costumes with a moving collar that shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. With Mischer, they built an enormous Temple of Zeus in Atlanta, from which Celine Dion belted out a string of hits. Four years later, Mischer and Birch turned Sydney's athletics arena into a virtual beach, before recreating the landmark Sydney Harbour Bridge in sparklers.

In Athens last time, Pepin and Mischer helped construct an enormous swimming pool that allowed a boy to sail into the stadium in a giant paper boat. The installation collapsed and drained in just two minutes, to send off a three-hour epic that was divided into dozens of acts with names like "Allegory", "Hourglass," and "Calling to the Ancient Olympic Spirit". To some, Birch and his colleagues are modern artistic geniuses. To others, they are laughable heavyweight champions of pretentious global kitsch. But while critics might laugh at their avant-garde narratives (or at Barry Davis's attempts to interpret them for British TV viewers) their industry has become a very lucrative closed shop.

Few individuals now have the creative expertise to pull off an Olympic opening ceremony. And if you haven't "done" an Olympics, then your firm won't ever get the really, really lucrative commissions, like being asked to mastermind America's Superbowl half-time shows. With every passing Olympics, the stakes get bigger. Barcelona cost £10m, Atlanta £15m, Sydney spent £20m, and Greece more than £35m. China (cost unknown, but rumoured to be more than £100m) is expected to blow all of them out of the water.

"I expect nothing less than an out-of-this-world, extraordinary spectacle from the Chinese," said Minshall yesterday. "Expect an old-fashioned use of quaint techniques such as stadium turning cards alongside modern technology. What they can do is amazing; I have seen them turn a chrysanthemum into a leaping tiger."

So who are these extraordinary men? Minshall, who hails from the Caribbean, is a costume designer who honed his trade as creative director of the carnival in his native Trinidad. His trademark is "kinetic" clothing that moves to create staggering visual effects. In addition to Barcelona, his company Callaloo was responsible for ceremonies at the last cricket world cup, and Olympics at Atlanta and Salt Lake City.

Pepin is a technical whizz. He projects cinematic images on public buildings and monuments, or drapes them in mist and lasers. Once, he turned the Eiffel Tower in Paris, his own capital city, into a soaring inferno. He organised the Paralympics in Athens, and was appointed special consultant to Beijing, alongside Birch and Steven Spielberg (who, or course, pulled-out for ethical reasons).

Mischer is expert in creating a spectacle that actually manages to reflect the host city's desire to portray itself in a sympathetic light. "It's very easy to create the 'wow' moments. I mean, you can produce a spectacle with special effects, and lights and pyrotechnics," he says. "The difficult thing is creating an emotional connection between the rest of the world and the host city.

"For example, when I was involved with the Salt Lake City winter games we had to ask ourselves, 'What is the world's image of Utah?'. And of course the answer was white middle-class polygamists. It may not have been fair, but it was a problem that forced us to say 'What can we do with this?'. So deciding what to do in circumstances like that is the really tough part of my job."

It wasn't ever thus, of course. For years, the opening ceremony of the Olympics involved athletes parading around a half-empty stadium, before a torch was lit, to mild applause. The turning point came in 1984, in the show-business capital of the world, Los Angeles. In a bid to both underline their city's then-buoyant credentials, and possibly to provide a two-fingered salute to their remaining Cold War rivals, organisers decided to create a show people might actually want to see. The result was arresting: hundreds of grand pianos played on the floor of the stadium, while a spaceman on a jetpack flew above the crowds.

That formula was developed by Seoul 1988, and then refined by Barcelona, which is regarded as the quintessential modern ceremony. "I'm biased, of course, but Barcelona turned the page," says Minshall, its costume designer.

Today, creating an opening ceremony takes three years. Each must fulfil five purposes. It must declare the Games open and host a parade of athletes. The Olympic oath must be sworn, and flag raised. Finally, in the most memorable segment, the flame is lit. In recent years the job has been performed by Muhammad Ali (Atlanta) and Cathy Freeman (Sydney) and an archer with a burning arrow (Barcelona).

Tod Gulick, managing director of Callaloo, said: "A good ceremony will produce an exhaustive emotion in the audience, some incredibly beautiful kinetic event that will make you stop, and just say 'aaaah!'."

In Beijing on 8 August, in a year where international politics is threatening to overshadow sport, organisers will therefore be hoping that the world is again dazzled by the Olympic ideal, and will once more allow itself a sharp intake of breath.