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2012 Olympics: did Boyle take on healthcare at London's Opening Ceremony?

Mark SappenfieldThe Christian Science Monitor

Of all the things to laud in Britain's long history, the director of the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics chose for his second act ... universal health care.

Yes, that "NHS" spelled out by hospital beds in Friday's opening ceremonies stands for Britain's National Health Service – the government-run universal health-care system that director Danny Boyle called an "amazing thing to celebrate."

Bob Costas, you're not in Kansas anymore.

It is more than a little bit presumptuous to imagine that Mr. Boyle was sending coded political messages to American voters who can't here the words "universal" and "health care" in the same sentence without invoking the Commerce Clause. But that doesn't mean Boyle didn't have a message.

He insisted that message was not political, but rather a reflection of the values that British society holds dear and emanates to the world.

"One of the reasons we put the NHS in the show is that everyone is aware of how important the NHS is to everybody in this country," he said at a press conference earlier in the day. "One of the core values of our society is that it doesn't matter who you are, you will get treated the same in terms of health care."

But not everyone agreed that the message had no hint of politics. "NHS beds dominated the infield for so long that it seemed more a political message than a tribute to our hardworking nurses," wrote the Daily Mail, adding that the spectacle "at times bordered on left-wing propaganda."

Repeatedly, Boyle made it clear that the ceremonies were his vision, and that London organizers gave him enormous freedom to shape them in his image. In that case, it should hardly be surprising that the director of films that chronicled heroin users ("Trainspotting") and the Indian underclass ("Slumdog Millionaire") might craft a performance from a working-class perspective.

Is that political? That is in the eye of the beholder.

But it is hard to escape at least some small sense of advocacy in Boyle's second act, particularly after a cigar-chomping elite let loose the gluttony of unchecked industry on the idyllic English countryside in the first act. This was, it seemed, an opening ceremony for the 99 percent.

In some respects, that gave it a poignancy beyond opening ceremonies of Olympic past – Boyle actually had a cutting message, whatever you thought of it. But for an Olympic movement that has long avoided even the scent of controversy – even forcing cities to ban civic protests during the Games – it was an unusual departure.