Of course we remember the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat from the actual competitions during the Olympics, but does anyone remember those epic opening ceremonies long after they’re over? Sure, but only bits and pieces. Here’s a reminder of the dozen moments that stuck with us long after we’ve forgotten just who won the gold that year anyway.
When Moscow invented stadium cards (1980)
Yes, this was the Olympic games in Moscow that the U.S. boycotted at the height of the Cold War. The opening ceremony is mostly remembered for the enormous human pyramids in the middle of the field, but there is one enduring creation that comes out of these games: the stadium cards. You know when everyone in the bleachers holds up a card and it makes a picture? Yup, we have the Russians to thank for those.
The rocket man of Los Angeles (1984)
The theme for the opening ceremony in Los Angeles during the Reagan administration was very futuristic, the highlight being the dude who flew into the stadium on a jet pack. How the heck did they do that? And can I get one of them?
When doves cried in Seoul (1988)
The producers of the Seoul opening ceremonies thought it would be a good idea to release a bunch of peaceful doves in the stadium. Too bad they all settled in the unlighted cauldron where the Olympic flame would go. When it came time to light it, a bunch of those doves met a less-than-peaceful end.
The Barcelona torch-lighting (1992)
In Barcelona, archer Antonio Rebollo helped one of the most dramatic torch-lightings of all time. His arrow was set on fire and then he shot it into the night sky where it connected with the cauldron that burst into flame as everyone the world was amazed. Little did they know that it was a bit of stage magic and the cauldron lit itself. But, hey, a little magic goes a long way.
The flaming ski jump in Lillehammer (1994)
After Barcelona threw down the cauldron-lighting gauntlet, Lillehammer (a.k.a. the Nancy Kerrigan–Tonya Harding Olympics) tried to go a step farther and had a ski jumper sail through the air with the Olympic torch. But then he had to pass it off to someone else who actually lit the cauldron. What is this? Amateur hour?
The G.O.A.T. in Atlanta (1996)
For the modern Olympics 100th anniversary, the games were in Atlanta and the Americans went with what they know best: schmaltz. The man who lit the final torch was none other than the great Muhammad Ali, his hands now shaky with Parkinson’s disease. Yeah, it may be schmaltzy, but it’s still enough to bring a tear to your eye.
Björk saying yes to the dress in Athens (2004)
For some reason Icelandic singer Björk was asked to perform at the opening of the Athens games. In glittering eye shadow and with flowers in her hair, she cooed her way through a strange number that didn’t make much sense as her dress slowly expanded to envelop the whole stadium. It was pretty cool, but as usual with Björk, everyone was left scratching their heads.
Pavarotti singing in Torino (2006)
The opening ceremony in Torino was a celebration of the long history of Italian culture from the Romans up through Sophia Loren, who was in attendance. There was also a performance by opera great Luciano Pavarotti, but what no one knew at the time is that it would be his final public performance before his death the following year.
Everything about the Beijing ceremony (2008)
It’s hard to pinpoint the most memorable moment from this opening ceremony, probably the best in modern times. There were the thousands of drummers moving in unison, dancers who wrote in calligraphy on giant scrolls, and a million seemingly mechanized boxes really being moved by people inside of them. And let’s not forget the adorable little girl who sang a patriotic song. Sure, we found out later that the girl we saw on TV was lip-syncing because they replaced the girl singing with a more photogenic girl, but if it’s good enough for Milli Vanilli, it’s good enough for the Olympics.
“Queen Elizabeth” skydiving in London (2012)
The Queen of England is known for many things, but her sense of humor is not one of them. That is why it was amazing when the London games featured a video of James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) going to Buckingham Palace, putting Her Majesty on a helicopter, and the two of them parachuting down to the field. Moments later Elizabeth emerged, in the clothes she was just wearing from the film, to kick off the festivities.
The broken lights in Sochi (2014)
Viewers at home thought it was weird when the Russian Police Choir covered the Daft Punk song “Get Lucky” at the Sochi games. But things really got bizarre and glitchy later in the show. Five giant illuminated snowflakes that hovered over the stadium were supposed to open and transform into the Olympic rings. The problem is, one never bothered to open, further plaguing games that were dogged by rumors of shoddy construction work and underpreparation. Apparently in Russia, television was on a delay and so footage of the trick working from rehearsals was swapped in so no one at home would see the failure. Now if Russia could only do that to avoid the world knowing about its doping scandal, which started at this Olympics.
The shirtless Tongan flag-bearer in Rio (2016)
Brazilians are known for their beauty, and supermodel Gisele Bündchen welcomed the Rio Olympiad by walking across the stadium while “The Girl From Ipanema” played. But it was someone from Tonga that won the internet’s heart. Pita Taufatofua, who competed in Tae Kwon Do for his country, carried the Tongan flag in a traditional shirtless outfit and covered in oil. Twitter exploded immediately and was totally in love. Luckily for the thirstiest among us, he’ll be back as Tonga’s only athlete in the 2018 winter games. Sadly his new role as a cross-country skier means he wears a shirt.
By Brian Moylan