In this article, Erving Goffman's interpersonal concepts of ‘tightness’ and ‘looseness’ are applied at the state level. At the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, artistic director Daniel Boyle made implicit comments on the ‘tight’ and perfectly synchronised Beijing Olympic Games with their control of every detail, their use of performers recruited from the military and the highlighting of a Confucian-inspired state loyalty. Boyle tried to present a soft and relatively humoristic version of Britishness, underlining the welfare state and the contribution of the UK to the international pop and rock scenes, to athletics and to children's literature. However, the armed forces and signals of a ‘protective shield’ played a major role in both the Chinese and the British examples, signifying that, although both Olympics were basically expressions of ‘soft power’ (Joseph Nye), there could be found at the same time, ‘backstage’ signals (Erving Goffman) of classic military ‘hard power’.