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Beijing 2008 Olympic opening ceremony
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/yggg

The 10 best Olympic Opening Ceremonies ever

Written by
Joel Meares

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are upon us. To sports fans, that means two weeks of people trying to be faster/stronger/better-at-putting-balls-in-things than each other. But for fans of wild spectacle and awkward dance-based renderings of entire national histories, it means only one thing: Opening Ceremony! Yes, we’re about to have us another super-expensive, four-hour long global lovefest and we couldn’t be more excited (well, we’ll be running errands/making a fresh cocktail during the athletes' parade, as per usual). Here, we look back at the 10 cities that set the Opening Ceremony bar breathtakingly high for the South Koreans.

10. Los Angeles, 1984

There was lots to love about the first summer Opening Ceremony to be staged in the States—Etta James singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”; seeing the US Army Band form the Olympic rings; the lighting of the torch by double decathlon medalist Rafer Johnson. But really, ’84 was all about the Rocketeer, Bill Suitor, who flew into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum wearing a jetpack called a “rocket belt.” He was paid $1,000 for the stunt—and given no tickets!—but he did get some bonus booze. “[After the flight] I remember some of the girls at the Coliseum got us some ice-cold beers in paper cups,” Suitor told GQ in 2012. “Man, they were good.”

9. Seoul, 1988
The last Opening Ceremony to be held during daylight hours will always be remembered for Dovegate: A number of doves released during the ceremony perched on the Olympic cauldron rather than fly immediately away; when former Korean athletes lit the flame at the end of the torch relay, the world got to see the doves roasted live on TV. But that incident—which provoked enough outrage to cause the discontinuation of the release of birds at Opening Ceremonies after 1992—overshadows what was a spectacular day, with mammoth taekwondo demonstrations and a troupe of skydivers descending on the stadium in the form of the Olympic rings.

8. London, 1948
These Olympics were always going to be a weighty affair, tasked with smoothly and triumphantly resuming the Olympic cycle after a 12-year hiatus due to war. The ceremony was an austere opening to the “Austerity Olympics,” but the 85,000-strong crowd at Wembley Stadium ate up the military and athlete processions and the site of King George, officially kicking off proceedings. A 21-gun salute preceded the lighting of the cauldron; RAF member Donald Finlay read the Olympic Oath. Bonus points: the very British newspaper reports of the day (which was apparently stinking hot). From The Guardian: “Not a man—apart from those high officials—wore his coat and many knotted their handkerchiefs around their heads.” Wild.

7. Athens, 2004

Did the Olympics play their part in sinking the Greek economy? We’ll leave that to the economists, but however many Euros were dropped on this spectacular, they were well spent for anyone looking for gaudy good times. Ancient gods. A giant high-tech pool. Bjork! The 72,000 people in attendance and billions watching at home—in the U.S., they were watching an Opening Ceremony in HD for the first time ever—got it all. They even got Tiesto, the first DJ to ever play at an Opening Ceremony, who supplied the wordless trance soundtrack to the Parade of Nations.

6. Tokyo, 1964
The first Olympics to be broadcast live internationally, and the first to be broadcast in color, was a moment rich in history—yes, that was Emperor Hirohito, in whose name the Pearl Harbor attacks were carried out, who opened proceedings and stood watching from a special box in National Stadium. Most memorably, the flame was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, the same day the city was bombed. He never competed in the games but was chosen to symbolize a new and peaceful direction for the nation.

5. Barcelona, 1992
Wipe the memory of the execrable Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned “Amigos Para Siempre” from your memory, and Barcelona stands as one of the most delightful Opening Ceremonies in recent history. Mammoth puppets dazzled the 67,000 spectators at the stadium, Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys; Paralympic archer Antonio Robello lit the flame by shooting a flaming arrow; and Freddy Mercury performed—sort of. The Queen lead singer had recorded a duet, “Barcelona,” with Montserrat Caballe, as the theme song for the games in the late 1980s; because of Mercury’s death in 1991, a recording was played during the ceremony rather than the live performance originally planned.

4. London, 2012
If London’s first turn at an Opening Ceremony had been marked by stiff upper lips and post-war austerity, its second was an altogether different affair: 2012 was a rib-tickler. The theme might have been irreverence (it was officially “Isles of wonder”) with director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) paying tribute to London’s history and culture with a fleet of double-decker buses, a hilarious Mr. Bean cameo during the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance and a skydiving Queen Elizabeth, who featured in a Boyle-directed short movie with Bond himself, Daniel Craig, shown before she parachuted the stadium (that was actually actress Julia McKenzie in the air).

3. Atlanta, 1996
Part pep rally (marching bands, cheerleaders, pick-up trucks), part nostalgic ode to the old south (with a stunning rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” from Gladys Knight), the opening ceremony for the centennial modern Olympic Games answered the lavishness of Barcelona with an unabashed celebration of ’Murrica. Despite the spectacle, it was one of the quieter moments of the July night at Centennial Stadium that cuts most indelibly through history: A determined, Parkinson’s-afflicted Muhammad Ali carrying the torch along the track and lighting the cauldron to commence the games.

2. Sydney, 2000
Kicking off Ken Done-designed “G’Day” covering the surface of Stadium Australia, viewers might have suspected max cheesiness after the opening minutes of the Sydney ceremony. But this September showcase will long be remembered for the spectacular, perfect-for-TV images that the artistic directors conjured, among them a kinetic vision of the Olympic rings formed by 120 galloping stock horses and the transformation of the stadium floor into the Great Barrier Reef. Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman, who would go on to win gold, lit the cauldron, which provided a glitchy moment of suspense—the ring of flame that rose around Freeman and made its way to the top of the stadium got stuck for four minutes along the way. (P.S. If you want to know what happened to the little girl whose journey formed the narrative of the ceremony, Google: “Nikki Webster Strawberry Kisses” and thank us later.)

1. Beijing, 2008
There are few who saw what went down in the Bird’s Nest (officially Beijing National Stadium) on August 8, 2008, who would quarrel with the many who say the Chinese gave the world the best Opening Ceremony—so far. Want acrobats tumbling Cirque-style on a 60-foot suspended planet? Want black-clad dancers painting Chinese characters across giant scrolls like magic human pens? Want smiley-face fireworks? China had your back. They even gave us a fabulous Communist party micro-scandal when it was revealed that Lin Miaoke, tasked with singing “Ode to the Motherland,” had in fact mimed to a recording of another little girl after a member of the Politburu decided her voice wasn’t up to snuff (the other little girl wasn’t photogenic enough for the main stage). “Made in China” isn’t always cheap, though. How much did it cost China to drop our jaws? Reportedly, a cool $US100 million.

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