Top 10 Olympic Opening Ceremonies

The opening ceremony of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a chance for the host to showcase its history, culture and pride. A spectacle of colour, light and dance, many view the performance as the highlight of the Games. Take a look at our pick of the best Olympic opening ceremonies to date (in no particular order!).

1. 2016 Rio Olympic & Paralympic Games

Opening with aerial shots of the beautiful country, Rio’s Olympic opening ceremony celebrated its culture, environment and history. The spectacle was directed by Fernando Meirelles, Daniela Thomas and Andrucha Waddington, who brought the wonder of Rio’s rainforest to the Olympic stadium through mesmerising movements and interlaced green ribbon. Rio brought attention to its indigenous past, showcasing how European settlers dictated its future. From soaring acrobats to poignant cultural statements, Rio’s ceremony was as much about reflection as it was a celebration.

Another highlight of the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games opening ceremony was its use of music. The stadium was brought to life with blocks and platforms for dancers to perform on, followed by a beat enthused rap duo – Karol Conká and MC Sofia. The venue was illuminated by sparkling fireworks and shimmering bodysuits, which represented the need for acceptance and diversity. To close Rio’s opening celebration, Judi Dench narrates a filmed segment that drew attention to the effects of climate change, and announced The Athlete’s Forrest; “this will be our Olympic message: Earthlings, let’s replant, let’s save the planet.”

2. 1996 Atlanta Olympic & Paralympic Games

Atlanta’s Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremony was quintessentially American. It started with film clips of the Olympic torch touring the United States to roaring applause, with people lining the streets to catch a glimpse of the iconic torch. As the first Olympic Games in the American South, Atlanta’s pride in its culture, people and history shone through. As a beaming African American woman ran through a group of runners holding a flag labelled “Atlanta”, it celebrated not just the previous Olympic hosts, but Atlanta’s joy at hosting the 1996 Games.

With marching bands, cheerleaders and Chevrolet pick-up trucks filling the venue to the backing track of Georgia on my Mind by Gladys Knight and the Star-Spangled Banner, the ceremony was undoubtedly American. It was Atlanta’s music that really set it apart, as Jazz and Gospel transported the audience to the streets of New Orleans.

3. 2012 London Olympic & Paralympic Games

The 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremony was a journey through history. Special attention was paid to the industrial revolution, which saw lush green hills transformed into steal grey panels, fiery orange rivers of metal and looming chimneys rising from the ground. The ceremony opened with a choir of children singing on a foggy beach, providing the soundtrack to Great Britain’s changing landscapes.

Entitled Isles of Wonder and directed by Danny Boyle, an Academy Award-winning British film director, a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest were the first words to fill the stage. The opening music was provided by Dame Evelyn Glennie, a deaf yet immensely talented drummer who kept pace through the vibrations in her feet. From the Suffragette movement and the West Indies migration to the psychedelic 60s and disco driven 80s, London’s opening ceremony paid homage to our history. The armed forces were also respected, followed by a storybook inspired celebration of the NHS and a hilarious skit by Mr Bean himself.

4. 1992 Barcelona Olympic & Paralympic Games

Barcelona’s opening ceremony was an artistic display of colour and culture. Played over multiple scenic shots of Barcelona was a duet by Montserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury, titled Barcelona. A fever dream of movement, abstract shape and animatronics, the ceremony saw a tall, metal puppet run across the stage, surrounded by dancers dressed up like yellow flames and leaves. The scene quickly became a glistening watery surface, broken up by copper coloured boats and machinery to represent Barcelona’s previous battles at sea.

5. 2008 Beijing Olympic & Paralympic Games

Widely regarded as one of the best Olympic opening ceremonies to date, Beijing’s opening ceremony was split into two segments; Brilliant Civilisation and Glorious Era. As the audience clapped in time, the stage was filled with an orchestra of musicians in Beijing’s military uniform. The whimsical sounds were quickly replaced by thousands of traditional percussionists, who shouted, drummed and danced in time, creating a wave of movement and light with illuminated batons. Once the stadium was plunged into darkness, the spellbinding display was otherworldly.

The event was grounded in Beijing’s history, from its music and dance performances to the artistic creations produced in front of the audience’s eyes, otherwise known as Scroll painting. The scene was then replaced by 897 movable type blocks, which represented China’s great inventions. The blocks rippled across the stage, creating a mesmerising spectacle. It was hard to keep track of how many performers filled the stage at one time, with seemingly thousands creating a neon light show of martial arts.

6. 1964 Tokyo Olympic & Paralympic Games

Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic and Paralympic ceremony opened with the phrase “the Olympics are a symbol of human aspiration”. The ceremony itself was symbolic, as it was the first time that North Germany and South Germany joined forces, representing the end of decades worth of tension. The Olympic flame was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on the day the Atomic Bomb was dropped in 1945, once again expressing the need for worldwide peace. Tokyo is also the first Asian country to host the Olympics.

7. 2004 Athens Olympic & Paralympic Games

In 2004, the Olympic and Paralympic Games returned to its birthplace 3,000 years prior – Greece. Hosted in Athens, the ceremony was kicked off by a drumming performance, followed by a shooting fireball that lit up the five Olympic rings floating on the water’s surface. Athens’ Games was a celebration of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the original Olympic Games in 776 BC and the modern reincarnation.

From its mythological beginnings to present-day culture, the event “was a pageant of traditional Greek culture and history harkening back to its mythological beginnings”, according to Dimitris Papaioannou. Stoic human statues filled the stage, harking back to the graceful sculptures of the Greeks. The dreamlike celebration combined spirit and the body with a centaur crossing the stadium, followed by a laser display of the solar system to represent humanity’s attempts to understand itself.

8. 1984 Los Angeles Olympic & Paralympic Games

In typical American fashion, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremony was a brightly coloured, patriotic celebration of the United States of America. After a countdown chimed with church bells, Marvin Hamlisch’s song, Welcome, brought the stadium to life with ribbon banners welcoming each nation in their native languages. This was followed by Bill Suitor hovering thanks to a jet pack. Throughout the event, numerous American hits were performed, including; a 300 member gospel choir singing When the Saints Go Marching In, Easter Parade’s Sing, Sing, Sing, Michael Jackson’s Beat It and the theme from Fame.

9. 2000 Sydney Olympic & Paralympic Games

Sydney’s opening ceremony personified Australia as a mysterious, beautiful woman in a captivating poem. Scenic shots of Australia’s wildlife and landscapes took the audience on a journey across the country, soaring above the lush rainforests and indigenous dancers. To the guttural sound of didgeridoos, Australian athletes toured the torch across the outback and through bustling cities, showing how Australia is a country of variety.

The Games marked 100 years of female athletes competing at the Olympics and Paralympics, celebrated by female athletes passing the torch back and forth until the final cauldron is lit by Cathy Freeman. The poignant moment was fuelled by an orchestra, but the emotive music was drowned out by the roaring audience. Sydney’s opening ceremony paid homage to Australia’s thriving wildlife, its traditional aboriginal culture and the country’s rich history.

10. 1948 London Olympic & Paralympic Games

Coined “the austerity games”, the 1948 London opening ceremony was a statement of peace after WW2. Due to Great Britain’s economic climate after years of war, the Games were held at stadiums already built, rather than expensive new venues specifically for the event. It is reported that the male athletes were housed in RAF camps and the female athletes resided in University dorm rooms, to reduce the cost of the Games further.

It was the first Olympic and Paralympic Games in 12 years due to the war and was attended by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In reference to the damaging effects of WW2, Lord Burghley stated that the ceremony represented a “warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low.”

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Mark Matthews

November 29th, 2019

About Mark Matthews

Mark has worked closely with some of the world’s most prestigious brands, including F1, Deloitte, American Express, McDonalds, HSBC and Samsung since joining us in 2017. With a degree in Business Management and Sports Science from the University of Worcester, he has brought vast experience to his role as a Senior Keynote Speaker Executive at Champions Speakers. 

Working with some of the biggest names in media and sport, from Tyson Fury to Sir Bradley Wiggins, as well as the likes of Ruud Gullit and Gabriel Batistuta for the Football Achievers Awards in China Mark has formed relationships with countless household names internationally. Sport isn't the only field where Mark excels. He has also arranged events with the likes of Oscar Salazar, Jonas Kjellberg and Ken Segall.

When he's not booking in top-class speaker talent, Mark enjoys winding up fellow executive, Matthew Holmes. Outside of the workplace, he has played high level Rugby and Cricket and is a master baker having won the ‘Cake Club of the Year Award’.

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