Olympic Opening Ceremonies: A Retrospective

By Benjamin Dettmar

The opening ceremony of the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia; featuring the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The opening ceremony of the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia; featuring the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What to Expect in Rio

The Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics takes place in Rio on Friday August 5. Viewers in the US can watch the action on NBC (who are showing the ceremony on 1 hour tape delay starting at 7:30 pm Eastern Time). Although details of the ceremony are a closely-guarded secret, viewers can expect the typical welcoming speeches from IOC dignitaries, the parade of nations (with Greece first, followed by the IOC nations in alphabetical order with the host nation coming last), the lighting of the Olympic flame, and a spectacular show highlighting the customs of Brazil. The Opening Ceremony could last as long as 4 hours and in between the speeches from IOC and Brazilian dignitaries there will be countless Olympic rituals that pay homage to the history of the Games, the events to come, and the host city. Rumors are that Brazilian soccer legend Pelé will play a prominent role (perhaps lighting the Olympic Cauldron), Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen will portray the “The Girl from Ipanema”, and Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles will help produce a show designed to showcase Brazilian history, heritage, and culture. The Opening Ceremony has become a chance for the host city to make a lasting impression on the world. Rio will have a lot to live up to given the performers and performances that have gone before.

The Evolution of the Opening Ceremony

The Olympics have often been used as a mechanism for cities to showcase a new or different narrative to the world. One of the most enduring opening ceremony images comes from October 10 1964 in Tokyo, Japan when Yoshinori Sakai lit the Olympic flame. Sakai was born 19 years earlier in Hiroshima on August 6 1945; the day an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city. The imagery of a young athlete, Sakai was a talented runner, would have delighted Baron Pierre de Coubertin (the father of the modern Olympics) and his ideal of the youth of the world coming together to promote peace.[1] Also pleasing to de Coubertin would have been the image of a new Japan. Sakai represented Japan’s reintroduction to the world and opened up the nation to tourism, trade, and respect as the world slowly began to accept and reintegrate Japan after the events of World War Two.

Yoshinori Sakai running up to the Olympic Cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo’s National Olympic Stadium. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Yoshinori Sakai running up to the Olympic Cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo’s National Olympic Stadium. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Twelve years before Tokyo the games of the XV Olympiad in Helsinki, Finland in 1952 were notable for featuring former superstar athletes in a prominent role in the opening ceremony and in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. The Flying Finns, Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen, lit the flame in the Olympic Stadium in the Finnish capital. Nurmi and Kolehmainen had 13 gold medals, and 17 total medals, between them. They were an obvious, and popular, choice to light the Olympic cauldron; for Nurmi in particular it was a fitting coda to his Olympic career after the way he was treated by the IOC before the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Nurmi has a claim to the title of greatest track Olympian of all time and the decision by the Finnish authorities to select their greatest athlete as the final carrier of the Olympic torch is a precedent that many subsequent Olympic host cities have adopted.

The “Flying Finn”, Paavo Nurmi, lights the Olympic cauldron at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

The “Flying Finn”, Paavo Nurmi, lights the Olympic cauldron at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

The Olympic flame was reintroduced to Olympic folklore at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam where the flame was lit in the stadium and sat atop the Olympisch Stadion for the duration of the Games. Before the Flying Finns the final torch carrier (and lighter of the Olympic cauldron) was somewhat anonymous. The final torch holders for 1936 (Fritz Schilgen in Berlin) and 1948 (John Mark in London) were chosen for their looks and grace as much as their athletic prowess. Interestingly one of the few legacies of the 1936 Olympics that still stands is the torch relay and the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron.[2] Although Fritz Schilgen was not a household name he began a tradition that is now much anticipated.

Before 1936 the style, specifics, and even the presence of an opening ceremony was not guaranteed. The opening ceremony in 1932 (Los Angeles) for example featured the usual parade of nations and the Olympic Oath being given in front of a large excited audience. Athletes also gave the traditional Olympic Salute during the opening ceremony, a gesture that looks very much like the Nazi salute made infamous during World War Two; unsurprisingly this aspect of Olympic ceremonies has been quietly dropped.

Before this the Opening ceremony was a somewhat haphazard affair. President Theodore Roosevelt did not attend the Opening Ceremony in 1904 in St. Louis in the USA (FDR also declined to attend in 1932 in Los Angeles) and at times, for example in 1900 when the Olympics was a part of the World’s Fair, there was no specific Opening Ceremony whatsoever. 1908 saw the Americans anger British officials by refusing to dip their flag to the Royal Box; whether this was due to long memories of the Revolutionary War, the abundance of Irish-Americans on the US Olympic team, or simply US hubris is unknown, but it certainly led to some hostile anti-American sentiment from the British Olympic Association and indeed the IOC. At this time the Opening Ceremony was very much an afterthought and the idea that such an event would become a highlight of the Games, watched by close to a billion people, was not something that de Coubertin would have expected or envisioned.

Symbolism in the Opening Ceremony

One of the more memorable Opening Ceremony images is Cathy Freeman lighting the flame at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Freeman was a favorite athlete of Australia and was tipped to win a medal in the 400 meters (she would win gold), but she also represented Australia’s aboriginal heritage. Toward the conclusion of the Opening Ceremony Freeman stood in all white (this seems to be an Olympic theme), in a pool of water, lighting an Olympic flame that circled around her and then rose slowly upwards to the roof of the Olympic stadium in Sydney. The imagery here is easy to understand. The Olympian ideals of peace, inclusion, and respect were at the forefront of what the Sydney Olympics were trying to show the world. Of course the history of the Olympics has not always been so welcoming. The US first hosted the Games in 1904 in St. Louis, an Olympics that is remembered for featuring the terrible Anthropology Days where native inhabitants of Olympic nations faced off against one another. Less than 100 years later Freeman’s lighting of the Olympic cauldron showed that the IOC was at least beginning to understand what it really meant to bring the youth of the world together via sport.

Archery on Anthropology Day at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. A very different image greeted viewers in Sydney 2000. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Archery on Anthropology Day at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. A very different image greeted viewers in Sydney 2000. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

America’s first brush with hosting the Olympics, in 1904, is remembered somewhat negatively and history has not always looked kindly upon the US’s most recent hosting of the summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996. The Games have gone down in history as an event that was perhaps too commercial and Atlanta as a host city did not capture the world’s imagination. But the Opening Ceremony in Atlanta was incredibly memorable as perhaps the most iconic sportsman of the twentieth century, and Gold medal winning boxer, Muhammad Ali was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron. Ali, despite visibly shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, looked resplendent and every bit as powerful as he had in his days as heavyweight champion of the world. Spectators in Atlanta, including President Bill Clinton and sports stars such as Shaquille O’Neal, were moved to tears as Ali held the Olympic torch and lit a flame that then that slowly climbed upwards to the Olympic cauldron atop the stadium. Ali, perhaps in a final show of defiance to the disease that enveloped him then held aloft the Olympic torch in his right fist. The greatest sportsman of the twentieth century and perhaps an athlete that has transcended both amateur and professional sport like no other had the distinction of starting the biggest sporting event in the world. He did not disappoint.[3]

London’s 2012 Opening Ceremony featured a tribute to Britain’s role in the Industrial revolution. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

London’s 2012 Opening Ceremony featured a tribute to Britain’s role in the Industrial revolution. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

The Opening Ceremony in Recent Olympics

It’s easy to be cynical about opening ceremonies. They have the ability to be bloated, expensive, self-indulgent, and often mask many of the very real issues that come with hosting the Olympics. Los Angeles 1984 is often seen as the beginning of the new wave of Opening Ceremony as Hollywood, almost inevitably, ensured that the world was greeted by an expensive and spectacular show featuring superstars such as Lionel Ritchie and, more bizarrely, a spaceman entering the Olympic Stadium via a jetpack. Four years later in Seoul, South Korea the host nation attempted to show itself as a nation of peace, and also sought to celebrate the end of the era of Olympic boycotts, by releasing a flock of doves as the Olympic cauldron was lit; inevitably many of the birds were burned to a crisp in front of millions of TV viewers.

However, if we put asides our cynicism and view Opening Ceremonies as a spectacle, as a way of introducing the world to the customs of the host city, as (dare I say) fun, then perhaps we should leave our scorn at home and just enjoy an entertaining show. London 2012 for example could probably not have been more British if it tried. Dany Boyle’s 4 hour “love letter to Britain” featured James Bond meeting the Queen and “escorting” her to the Olympic stadium, as well as the incredibly British TV character Mr. Bean, and an homage to the industrial revolution and the National Health Service. Music came from, amongst others, The Arctic Monkeys, Pink Floyd, and Paul McCartney. Team GB entered the stadium to a classic David Bowie song (“Heroes”). It was kitschy, sentimental, and full of clichés; but it worked. The notoriously skeptical British public got behind Team GB, the show was well-received around the world (despite NBC omitting to show the tribute to the 52 people who died in the 7/7 bombings in London), and it came in at well under half the cost of the spectacular show in Beijing 4 years earlier (despite costing a reported 27 million pounds). London also received praise for their choice of torch bearers with Olympic great Steve Redgrave (winner of 5 Olympic gold medals at 5 consecutive Olympics) handing over to 7 teenage athletes who represented the future of the sport and epitomized de Coubertin’s vision.

Four years earlier in Beijing, China the Opening Ceremony likely hit its highpoint in terms of showmanship and cost. Anyone who witnessed the spectacle in 2008 will remember the spectacular fireworks and intricate choreography but also the controversies such as the use of CGI, lip-synching by some of the performers, and most of all the estimated cost of over 100 million US dollars.[4] The Opening Ceremony did however showcase a new China to the rest of the world. Chinese officials were hopeful that the Bird’s Nest stadium and memories of the Olympics, especially the opening ceremony, would usurp Tiananmen Square and human rights issues as the image that outsiders would have of the nation.

The National Stadium AKA the “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, China. Home of the 2008 summer Olympics. Image courtesy of Edwin Lee, via Flickr Creative Commons.

The National Stadium AKA the “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, China. Home of the 2008 summer Olympics. Image courtesy of Edwin Lee, via Flickr Creative Commons.

The organizers of Rio 2016 have promised to try to follow London’s blueprint in terms of an affordable games, the opening ceremony budget is less than half of London’s, so we can presume to see a show more akin, albeit less flashy, than 2012 and certainly nothing like we saw in 2008. As well as the aforementioned Pelé and the Girl from Ipanema we can expect homage to Brazil’s amazon rainforest and the nation’s Carnival tradition. With Brazil in the midst of economic depression, with world-wide anxiety surrounding the Games rampant, and with protests still fresh in the memory from the World Cup in 2014 it will be fascinating to see the response to Meirelles’ Opening ceremony. One thing is for sure, it will be a spectacle that is not to be missed!

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

Notes:


[1] The French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in 1896 in part due to the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 (he wanted the youth of France to be as athletic as their German neighbors), and also to bring together the youth of the world in peace and harmony.
[2] The Nazi Party was keen to showcase Berlin and Germany to the world and purposefully reintroduced the Torch Relay that has been a part of the Ancient Olympics. The Olympic flame was carried from its ancestral home in Greece through numerous Eastern European countries to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The torch relay features heavily in the film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl.
[3] It is impossible to tell the history of all previous Olympic opening ceremonies in one Blog post and I would recommend searching for Opening Ceremonies on YouTube or taking a look at the IOC’s official website https://www.olympic.org/the-ioc. For example, much of the 1996 opening ceremony (discussed here), and indeed many opening ceremonies, can be found on YouTube.
[4] It should be noted that artistic license has been used by many previous directors of Opening Ceremonies. For example the great Luciano Pavarotti did not sing live at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. At the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona the flame was lit by the arrow of Paralympian Antonio Rebollo. Rebollo’s arrow purposefully went way over the cauldron so as not to risk hitting anybody in the crowd but the flame “magically” lit anyway. The list goes on….

One thought on “Olympic Opening Ceremonies: A Retrospective

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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