The Top 10 Opening Ceremonies in Summer Olympic History
Always one of the most talked about events of the Olympics, the opening ceremony provides a platform for creative pageantry all while highlighting the best athletes in sports.
We’re taking a look back at the 10 best opening ceremonies in Olympic history.
From the classical to the decadent to the avant-garde, let's take a look now at how cities through history have welcomed the sporting universe.
10. Athens, 1906
"Wait," you're thinking, "There was a 1906 Summer Olympics?"
Indeed there was, in large part because the 1900 and 1904 Games were such abject failures that the Greeks felt the need for an intermediary Games to help revive the movement.
The renaissance was largely successful, and its well-attended opening ceremony featured the first ever Parade of Nations.
9. Moscow, 1980
Contrary to Cold War stereotypes that painted Soviets as unyielding automatons, it was Moscow that brought new levels of artistry to the opening ceremony.
Particularly notable were multiple uses of the card stunt, whereby members of the audience held up colored plaques in order to make larger designs (a trick later reproduced by organizers of the 1984 Los Angeles Games).
Passe by modern standards, the intricate images created by the Russian audience went off to wide critical acclaim at the time.
8. Antwerp, 1920
Two major innovations sprung forth from the 1920 opening ceremony: the Athletes' Oath and the Olympic flag.
Both were powerful displays of unity after the devastation caused by World War I, and both stand to this day as symbols of the modern Olympic movement.
7. Amsterdam, 1928
The symbolic place of fire in the Olympics stretches back to antiquity, when the Greeks would light a flame at the altar of Zeus to mark the opening of the Games.
The Dutch would revive that tradition at the 1928 Amsterdam Games with the introduction of an official Olympic flame.
Renowned Dutch architect Jan Wils designed the cauldron atop Amsterdam's Olympisch Stadion.
Also of note, the Amsterdam opening ceremony marked the first time that Greece led the Parade of Nations with the host country bringing up the rear.
6. Barcelona, 1992
This was Olympic drama at its finest.
In the hushed darkness of Barcelona's Estadi Olimpic, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo touched the end of his arrow to the Olympic torch and took aim at the Olympic cauldron.
After a suspenseful moment's wait, Rebollo fired the flaming missile and landed it in the torch's metallic basin.
Or maybe he didn't.
Rebollo was in fact instructed to aim past the torch, giving the appearance of a perfect shot whilst a well-placed official lit the flame via remote control.
Smokescreens or not, it was a magnificent spectacle and a much-needed return to grace after the futuristic overkill of Los Angeles in 1984.
5. Tokyo, 1964
This was the first true tearjerker of an opening ceremony, a display of Japan's post-war resilience capped off by an emotional flame lighting by Yoshinori Sakai.
Born in Hiroshima the same day the city was rocked by an atomic bomb, the hale 19-year-old was a symbol of Japan's new-found strength and prosperity.
4. Atlanta, 1996
Brutalized by critics for its perceived over-commercialization, Atlanta bucked its go-go stereotype—at least temporarily—with one of the most achingly human moments in opening ceremony history.
The man responsible was Muhammad Ali—36 years after he became an Olympic gold medalist in Rome and more than a decade into his fight against Parkinson's disease—appearing unannounced to light the Olympic flame.
Shaking, struggling and yet eminently graceful, Ali sent the crowd into delirium.
NBC commentator Bob Costas verbalized the soaring emotions with an all-time great sport soliloquy.
Once the most dynamic figure in sports—a gregarious man now trapped inside that mask created by Parkinson's Syndrome. So in one sense a poignant figure, but look at it—still a great, great presence, still exuding nobility and stature. And the response he evokes is part affection, part excitement, but especially respect. What a moment.
3. Athens, 1896
The first modern Olympiad also featured the first opening ceremony and would set various precedents that continue to the present.
Notable firsts included the playing of the Olympic Anthem, the official opening of the Games by the head of state (King George I of Greece) and the presence of a sizable viewing audience (80,000 strong).
Even in the absence of television cameras, choreographed dance and jet packs, respect must be paid to the original.
2. Sydney, 2000
Framed by the narrative of a young girl's daydream, there was a magical quality to Sydney's 2000 spectacle.
And although the direct Olympic symbolism seemed secondary at times, it was hard not to fall for the bio-luminescent depictions of Australia's sea life or the colorful majesty of its aboriginal presenters.
While in another time it might have felt garish, the cornucopia of color, light and dance seemed fitting for the dawn of the 21st century.
According to the BBC, then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch would later call it the most beautiful opening ceremony he had ever seen.
1. Beijing, 2008
Perhaps in 30 years it will seem as outdated and unremarkable as Moscow's card stunt, but for the moment, Beijing is the clear opening ceremony standard bearer in terms of sheer awe induced.
I mean, where to start?
There's the insane fireworks display, the heart-pounding might of 2,008 glowing drummers and, of course, the cherry on top: former Olympian Li Ning climbing the stadium walls on his way to light the Olympic flame.
It took 14,000 people and cost roughly $300 million, but the result was captivating. In this age of digital effects, it was the the rare live performance that truly amazed.
A Note on Berlin, 1936
It felt crass to include the Berlin Games on a list of the "Top 10 Summer Olympic Opening Ceremonies" in the sense that it feels wrong to celebrate any event geared toward displaying the might of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.
That said, the 1936 opening ceremony was a significant one in many respects.
Not only did the Germans introduce the idea of the torch relay, they were the first to place a heavy premium on showmanship and pomp in the opening ceremony.
And although the motives were abhorrent—namely the glorification of the Third Reich—it must be said that the current opening ceremony template owes much to Berlin.