While the sporting action at the Rio 2016 Olympics has already started with the group stage matches of men’s and women’s football, the Games will truly come alive today (or tomorrow depending on which time zone you’re reading this!) once the opening ceremony has been staged in Rio de Janeiro. The opening ceremony has been a tradition of the Olympics since the time of the Ancient Games. However, the format of the opening ceremony in the modern Olympics was largely defined at the 1920 Summer Olympics at Antwerp, which were the first in which the Olympic Oath was voiced, the first in which doves were released to symbolize peace, and the first in which the Olympic Flag was flown.
Over time, the Olympic opening ceremony has become grander and more elaborate, serving as the perfect platform to highlight the host nation’s art, culture and history. We take a look back at five of the greatest Olympic opening ceremonies of the modern Games:
1964 Summer Olympics, Tokyo (Japan):
The 1964 Games were the first Olympics to be held in Asia. These were not only the first Olympics to be telecast internationally, without the need for tapes to be flown overseas, but also the first ones to be broadcast in color. The Tokyo Olympics were a symbol of Japan’s resilience in the face of adversity and a showcase of their postwar prosperity. But what captured the zeitgeist more than anything was the image of 19-year-old amateur runner Yohinori Sakai, born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima on the same day the city was bombed, running up the steps of the Olympic Stadium to light the torch.
1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles (USA):
The only Olympic Games not to be sponsored by the government and the only ones till date to turn in a profit, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles had a spectacular opening ceremony. There were a number of highlights ranging from Etta James singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” to 84 pianists playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and composer John Williams’s theme for the Olympiad, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” (which won him a Grammy and has become the signature musical theme for the Olympics). But perhaps the most eye-popping moment was the sight of Rocketeer, Bill Suitor, who flew into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum wearing a jetpack called a “rocket belt.”
2000 Summer Olympics, Sydney (Australia):
Dubbed the “Millennium Olympic Games” the 2000 Olympics in Sydney are widely regarded as one of the most successful editions of the Games. There were indications aplenty of how memorable these Olympics would be from how well the opening ceremony was organized. There was an acknowledgement of Australia’s history with an Aborigine theme to opening ceremony and the choice of Cathy Freeman for lighting the Olympic cauldron. The almost dream like ceremony also paid tribute to Australia’s rich natural heritage with the Olympic Stadium floor transforming into the Great Barrier Reef during the event. One of the high points (no pun intended) of the opening ceremony was the music performance of 13-year-old Nikki Webster who hovered over the crowd while belting out popular numbers. And as a reminder of the power of sports to unite people across boundaries, North and South Korean athletes marches together under one flag.
2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing (China):
The best Olympics opening ceremony till date. Period.
The Beijing Olympics had their share of controversies before the event kicked off ranging from pro-Tibet protests and human rights issues in China to the quality of air in its cities. But once the opening ceremony started with the beats of 2,008 Fou drummers, it was all forgotten. Co-directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Chinese choreographer Zhang Jigang and featuring over 15,000 performers, the ceremony reportedly cost USD 100 million. The event started off with black-clad dancers painting Chinese characters across giant scrolls and kept the audience in thrall for the next four hours with stunning acrobatics, spectacular fireworks and soaring orchestral arrangements. The climax of the event was the igniting of the Olympic cauldron by former Chinese gymnast Li Ning after being suspended into the air by wires and completing a lap of the National Stadium at roof height. China had set the bar to the next level.
2012 Summer Olympics, London (United Kingdom):
The Beijing Olympiad opening ceremony was a tough act to follow. However, the British dug deep and came up with a spectacular opening event that was seeped in English history and culture while being quirky and irreverent at the same time. Directed by Academy award winner Danny Boyle, the London Olympics opening ceremony had everything from a performance by Sir Paul McCartney to a reading from J.K. Rowling to a delightful cameo by Mr. Bean against the backdrop of the London Symphony Orchestra, to a helicopter drop-in from James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II! Officially called the “Isle of Wonder”, the event drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as well as Shelly’s Frankenstein. For good measure there was also a suited and booted David Beckham driving a speedboat down the Thames with the Olympic flame at its helm.
Honorable mentions in our list for the best Olympic opening ceremony are:
1980 Summer Olympics, Moscow (USSR / Russia):
While only 81 nations took part in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, due to the US-led boycott, the opening ceremony was quite spectacular. The highlights of the opening ceremony included a dance suite featuring the traditional dances of the 15 Soviet republics, some brilliant gymnastics and a live message from the Salyut 6 crew Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin.
1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona (Spain):
The 1992 Barcelona Olympics were historic for multiple reasons. These were the first Olympics for the unified German team since the 1964 Games as well as the first ones for the apartheid-free South African team since the 1960 edition. As the Soviet Union had been dissolved in 1991, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sent their own teams for the first time since 1936. The other Soviet republics competed together (one last time) under the name Unified Team. At the opening ceremony the audience was regaled by giant mammoth puppets as well as by a recorded performance of the song “Barcelona” by Montserrat Caballe and Freddie Mercury, the deceased lead singer of The Queen. The biggest highlight of the event though was Paralympic archer Antonio Robello lighting the Olympic cauldron by shooting a flaming arrow.