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Why Olympics opening ceremonies keep getting better

They've become quite intricate, artistic, and eye-popping over the years, with each one raising the bar from what came before.

A skydiver parachutes into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
A skydiver parachutes into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Simon Bruty/Getty Images

The Olympics bring out the most casual of sports fans, for a variety of reasons. Some of those fans are blatantly enthralled by the storylines that network television will beat into viewers’ heads. (Underdog? History-making? A comeback for the ages? We’re bringing it to you every two years, snow or sunshine!) Others are actually thrilled to see the incredible athletic achievements in sports that rarely earn exposure in an online and 500-channel cable universe.

Based on the viewership of the 2012 Summer Games in London, however, there are a good 40 million Americans who tune in just for the spectacle of the opening ceremonies. And considering how intricate, artistic, and eye-popping they have become, who can blame them?

The Parade of Nations is a study in pageantry (and, in recent years, lots of giddy athletes taking selfies and filming the crowd with their smartphones). The elaborately staged performances try to squeeze the host nation’s entire cultural history into a 45- to 90-minute window. And then there’s the most anticipated moment of all: the lighting of the Olympic flame.

If you were to categorize television coverage of the modern opening ceremony, it doesn’t truly begin until the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Now, that may sound a bit patriotic, and perhaps Seoul (1988) or Barcelona (1992) is the true benchmark, but how could you discount an event that featured a musical mashup of Michael Jackson’s "Beat It," Irene Cara’s "Fame," and "One" from A Chorus Line?

Of course, with that said, technology has really transformed the most recent ceremonies, beginning with the Sydney Summer Games in 2000. Ever since, each subsequent host nation has tried to top what came before.

We’re pretty sure group choreography performed by hundreds of volunteers with little formal dance translating speaks volumes no matter your language. But sometimes those volumes say very different things. Read on for a survey of the highlights and increasing spectacle of the past eight Summer Olympics opening ceremonies, and how each one raised the bar from what came before.

Los Angeles, 1984

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A salute to the American experience through music, with cowboys and Indians, a gospel choir singing "When the Saints Go Marching In," and, of course, the Hollywood musical moment. A cast of 9,000 proved capitalists could perform perfectly synchronized dance moves just as well as the Soviet Union and China.

There were no digital screens or intricate set pieces back then. In fact, most of the performers danced on the grass field. But there was some inspiration: A live performance of George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" included 84 grand pianos, which is still pretty jaw-dropping when you watch it today. Oh, and dude! A guy landed on the field in a jet pack. Far out, right? Maybe the '80s weren’t that bad after all.

Seoul, 1988


This was the last opening ceremony held during the daytime, and it brought a taste of South Korea’s traditional music and dance to the world. There was a taekwondo demonstration, and a group of skydivers who formed the Olympic rings before landing in the stadium.

There was also an unfortunate incident in which several doves — released earlier in the ceremony as a symbol of world peace — were burned alive after they made the mistake of thinking the Olympic cauldron was a safe resting place. You can imagine the memes that might crop up if that happened today; it’s no surprise that nations are no longer allowed to release live birds during the show.

Barcelona, 1992

The evening setting helped, but Barcelona demonstrated what a host nation could really do if it spent time on the artistic vision of its opening ceremony. Sure, there was the expected flamenco dancing salute, but the second half of the show became the first Olympic opening ceremony that was just as much performance art as pageantry.

It gorgeously celebrated the city’s Gaudí architecture in the context of an abstract sea battle, which you could easily understand without silly insight from the network commentators. To top it off, an archer shot a flaming arrow to light the Olympic cauldron. It’s an iconic moment few Olympics have matched since ... at least until the next Summer Games, of course.

Atlanta, 1996

Although Atlanta’s opening ceremony featured what at the time qualified as the most modern television production to date, with lighting and moving cameras that are now commonplace, the show was a very '90s affair dominated by cheerleaders, marching bands, monster trucks (listening to Bob Costas try to justify their significance to American culture was laughable), a ton of fireworks, and a forgettable original song performed by Canadian Celine Dion.

Surprisingly, Gloria Estefan’s big hit "Reach" was part of the eventual closing ceremony, and arguably the best moment at either ceremony outside of an appearance by Muhammad Ali. Yes, Atlanta’s trump card was that "the Greatest," showing signs of what would be a long fight with Parkinson’s, was the surprise cauldron lighter to kick off the games. To this day, his appearance is still one of the most indelible moments in modern Olympic history.

Sydney, 2000

At the close of a century and the dawn of a new one, Sydney tried to combine the best elements of Barcelona and Atlanta; through showmanship it pretty much topped them both.

Much of the show followed 10-year-old Nikki Webster as she explored different aspects of Australian culture. Many elements of the performance were suspended in the air, be they exotic creatures of the deep or Webster herself. Aboriginal culture was given a major spotlight with native dancers and stilt walkers (although the Caucasian dancers made up as aboriginals probably wouldn’t fly now).

And did we mention the fire breathers, gigantic neon flowers, multicultural dance party, what appeared to be a "Stomp" salute, and Olivia Newton-John?

The only negatives were the fact the show’s original songs were entirely unremarkable and Kylie Minogue was saved for the closing ceremony. Australia also didn’t have Ali, but it did have its own hero, aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman.

Standing in front of a manmade waterfall, Freeman lit the Olympic flame in a pool of water while accompanied by an angelic chorus. The cauldron then rose above her in the biggest "wow" moment of the night before it dramatically made its way to the top of the stadium.

Athens, 2004

Let’s forget for a minute that you can drive by deserted Olympic venues in Athens today that look like abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit, and that at the time Athens was considered as problematic as Brazil is now. No one thought Athens would pull it off. The city’s 2004 opening ceremony was a chance to prove everyone wrong.

From the moment gigantic Olympic rings were set ablaze, you knew the ceremony was going to do its best to out-spectacular Sydney. Athens pretty much told the journey of life through interpretive dance, via statues that came "alive," and it was the first ceremony to use visual projection on floating objects, to stunning effect.

The lighting of the cauldron was slightly anticlimactic compared with cauldron lightings from previous games, but overall the ceremony was as artistic as Barcelona, and on a much grander scale.

Beijing, 2008

Fireworks, anyone? In a gigantic technical leap even from Athens, legendary filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero) directed the two-part ceremony that focused on ancient and modern China, and he did not disappoint.

Fireworks set off across the city led the viewer to the Olympic stadium. The Olympic rings appeared digitally on the floor and then rose into the sky. Digital projection and physical set pieces were used in ways many had never dreamed of previously, and afterward many of these techniques suspiciously started to appear in the tours of major pop stars.

Beijing’s event was long (there was a lot of history to cover), but highlights included a total of 2008 tai chi performers synchronized in unison to music with almost no beat to follow, a floating digital tapestry that told the history of China, and a movable floor that revealed a gigantic globe with people twirling all over it.

The cauldron was lit by former Olympian Li Ning, who was suspended in the air and "ran" on the aforementioned tapestry that unfolded across the top of the stadium and told the story of where the torch had been since leaving Athens. The flame was then lit, and lots and lots of fireworks exploded all over the city near the stadium.

In many ways it was a ceremony more for its host country than anyone else, but it was still hard to take your eyes off it.

London, 2012

Oscar winner Danny Boyle was put in charge of London’s ceremony, and the Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire filmmaker delivered an energetic pop fest. In contrast with the previous few ceremonies, Boyle chose to use a lot of physical props, and initially the stadium’s floor was covered with a theatrical green countryside that represented each kingdom in the UK.

The program began as a period piece set to a pulsing modern soundtrack that focused on the Industrial Revolution, and found the Olympic rings forming above the stadium and burning with fire as though they were welded together (a famous image from these games).

The rest of the show had a number of competing elements (national health care, immigrants), but it really just became a celebration of Britain’s contribution to pop culture over the past 30 years. At one point, none other than James Bond (Daniel Craig) arrived at Buckingham Palace to accompany her majesty the queen (the real one) to the ceremony, where they seemed to parachute into the stadium (not really). You could find Mr. Bean, Dizzee Rascal, Arctic Monkeys, and even David Beckham.

In a change from previous games, young athletes were selected by former British Olympians to light the absolutely stunning cauldron. And what better way to end the walk down memory lane than with Paul McCartney leading the stadium in the chorus from "Hey Jude"? It wasn’t transcendent, but you absolutely couldn’t forget it.