The 7 Best Moments From Olympic Opening Ceremonies

It’s all going to kick off on Saturday morning at 6AM in Rio. To celebrate, we remember the most sensational moments from the games’ opening ceremony history

Cancel your plans. Clear your weekend. The Great Games kick off this weekend with Rio’s Opening Ceremony – which promises to be a bacchanalian party worthy of Carnivale itself – and our bodies are ready.

But before then, to get you in the mood, here are the most sensational moments from Opening Ceremonies past. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and then you’ll cry some more.

Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic Torch in Atlanta, 1996

Some have called this the greatest Olympic moment of all time, and it didn’t even involve a track, field or swimming pool. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympics when Muhammad Ali, clad in all white, lit the torch. Even more emotional was the fact that Ali, widely considered one of the world’s greatest athletes, recently diagnosed with Parkinsons, holding the flame aloft and lighting the torch. We defy you not to cry while watching this.

James Bond and the Queen parachute into London, 2012

As far as grand entrances though, it doesn’t get better than this. In a video beamed out around the stadium, Daniel Craig’s James Bond heads to Buckingham Palace to pick up the Queen before the Opening Ceremony in London, 2012. Impeccably suited, surrounded by corgis, and striding with purpose, Bond cut a fine figure. But even more impressive? His co-star The Queen, who made a rare appearance onscreen in the short (“Evening Mr Bond,” her one line). The pair then proceeded to mount a helicopter, fly over the stadium and parachute into the Opening Ceremony, where the crowds went wild. There was undoubtedly a bit of cinematic sleight of hand here, and once you realise the skit was directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, suddenly everything makes sense. Jolly good fun.

North Korea and South Korea march together in Sydney, 2000

It was an idea first floated by East and West Germany (though they never walked together in an Olympic Opening Ceremony). But in 2000 it was commandeered by North and South Korea, who despite competing separately at the Sydney games, marched together and under a single flag at the Opening Ceremony. With two flag bearers and tears streaming down their face, the North and South Korean athletes were an image of the hope that the country and its people had for reunification. Ultimately, it did not happen. But the scene was a reminder that sport, and in particular the Olympics, have an incredible power to bring people together.

The drums, the drums, the drums in Beijing, 2008

More people than reside in the entirety of Australia – 34 million people, to be precise – watched the spectacular Beijing opening ceremony, a feast for the eyes that included a heart-racing synchronised drum routine, fireworks, lanterns and soaring orchestral arrangements. Though the ceremony was marred with controversy when it was revealed that the cute Chinese kid singing the national anthem was lipsynching (with a presumably less photogenic kid hidden in the wings, uh, have we learnt nothing from Singing in the Rain?) this ceremony still remains one of the most mind-blowingly memorable in the history of the games. And it didn’t come cheap. The spectacle comprised 14,000 people and racked up a rumoured $300 million bill. Ouch.  

The torch lighting ceremony gets an archery update in Barcelona, 1992

We like to think that Antonio Rebollo kickstarted the archery revival that paved the way for Katniss Everdeen and Legolas at the Barcelona opening ceremony in 1992. A paralympian archer, he lit the torch with a single flaming arrow that soared over the crowd to set the flame alight. Talk about theatrics!

A star is born in Sydney, 2000

Opening Ceremonies often rely on tired tropes: crazy costumes, tried-and-tested dance routines, and singing children. There’s nothing like a pint-sized songbird to warm the cockles of your tired, cold heart. And in Sydney 2000, that child was Nikki Webster, an unknown musical theatre prodigy, resplendent in a lurid pink dress and headband, singing (and signing) a sweet track called ‘Under the Southern Skies’. After the Opening Ceremony, Webster was an idol to many a stargazing preteen, and her next single ‘Strawberry Kisses’ became a childhood classic. The less said about the rest of her career (FHM cover, Dancing with the Stars) the better.

Japan celebrates their post-war resilience in Tokyo, 1964

Is there any image that sticks in your mind from the Tokyo 1964 Olympics more than the sight of 19-year-old amateur runner Yohinori Sakai running up the steps of the Olympic Stadium, flame aloft, to light the torch? Sakai was born on the same day that his hometown Hiroshima was struck by the atomic bomb 19 years previously, and his athetlic vigour and enthusiasm was a symbol not only of the city’s post-war prosperity but also Japan’s resilience in the face of adversity. Japanese audience members sobbed in the stands watching this teen they dubbed ‘Hiroshima Baby’ light the torch, and thousands around the world sobbed with them.

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