Glamour, glitz, drama, splendour - Olympic Opening Ceremonies are the greatest shows on earth
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
It has been described as the first gold medal of the Games.
For the man who revived the Olympics, the Opening Ceremony was much more than that.
"It must involve solemnity and a ceremonial that must always be in keeping with the prestige that warrants its noble titles and stay strictly within the limits of good taste and moderation," wrote Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
It was also "how an Olympiad must distinguish itself from a straightforward series of world championships".
The early Olympic Ceremonies were very modest. There were no Olympic rings and no Olympic flame. In fact, the only element of the 1896 Ceremony recognisable today is the Olympic anthem. It was commissioned at a cost of 5,000 drachmae and composed and conducted by Spiros Samaras; with words by national poet Kostis Palamis – "it gives life to noble Games".
For reasons unknown, it was not performed at the 1908 Games in London or at any other Games over the next half century. A copyright dispute over other music used led to its reintroduction in 1958. It is now played as the Olympic flag is raised.
Although the London 1908 Opening Ceremony did include a Parade of Nations, it was not quite like the great spectacle of today.
The Americans were furious that their flag was not flying in the Stadium, particularly as the banners of some non-participant nations were to be seen.
Legend has it that they refused to dip the stars and stripes as they passed King Edward VII. If this was the case, it went unreported at the time.
The last Opening Ceremony to be held in London in 1948 was a much simpler affair than today, although they still had their share of stardust. They appointed Sir Malcolm Sargent as director of music.
Before the Grand Parade at Wembley, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members trooped onto the field to be introduced to King George VI.
Then came the parade of the teams, headed by Greece, a tradition introduced in 1928 to recognise their special place in the Olympic movement. The instructions to the teams were drawn up by Colonel Hennessy and they sounded as if they had come straight from the parade ground.
"On arrival at their correct position in the stadium, the teams should stand 'at ease' but remain in their ranks. They should come to attention only during the national anthem, the formal opening by the King and the taking of the Olympic Oath."
The last of 59 nations were the team from Great Britain, resplendent in the type of Kangol beret now popularised by Samuel L Jackson.
The King's speech was precisely 16 words long and was followed by a 21 gun salute.
The Archbishop of York gave a solemn invocation and Sargent strode out to conduct the massed bands and choirs in Quilter's Non Nobis Domine, chosen as the Olympic hymn that year.
Someone asked him what it was like conducting in such a vast arena.
"Like taking a jellyfish for a walk on a piece of string," he said.
The arrival of the Olympic Torch, then as now is the highlight of the Ceremony.
A flame had burned at the 1932 Los Angeles opening, but had been ignited by a switch.
In Berlin in 1936, a German runner Fritz Schilgen emerged from the darkness with the flame to light a simple brazier.
When the Games resumed after the war, the Torch Relay was one element to be enthusiastically retained, but London's 1948 cauldron was modest in size compared to those used today.
The man chosen to light it was John Mark, a medical student who had been at Cambridge University.
"He looked like a Greek god," wrote Philip Noel Baker. The choice of Mark had been controversial. Many including Queen Elizabeth II wondered: "why didn't they choose little Sydney?". European 5,000 metres champion Sydney Wooderson was the man in question.
Mark never did make it to the Olympics but his understudy, Angus Scott, competed in 1952 in the 400m hurdles.
That year, Paavo Nurmi lit the flame in the Stadium and then Hannes Kolehmainen appeared at the top of the marathon tower to light a further cauldron visible for miles around. Even so the most memorable moment of the Ceremony for some was the unscheduled appearance of the "Peace Angel" – a female protester who reached the speaking dais before her protest was ended.
When the Games were awarded to Tokyo in 1964, the organisers had realised the symbolic possibilities of the choice of cauldron lighter. Nineteen-year-old Yoshinori Sakai was born the day the atomic bomb fell in Hiroshima.
Gradually the Ceremony itself had become more complex. On a sunlit afternoon in Munich in 1972 after a Ceremony which included traditional German folk dances, the final Torchbearer Gunther Zahn was accompanied by Kip Keino (Africa), Derek Clayton (Oceania), Kenji Kimihara (Asia) and Jim Ryun (America), the escorts symbolising the five continents.
In Moscow, the striking of the Kremlin clock was relayed to the Lenin Stadium by loudspeaker to begin the 1980 Opening Ceremony.
Then horse drawn chariots entered the Stadium to the sound of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique before the Grand Parade of Teams. Later there was a magnificent balletic display, the like of which had not previously been seen at an Olympic Opening Ceremony.
President Leonid Breshnev opened the Games and then triple jump champion Victor Saneyev ran into the Stadium with the flame. He passed it to basketball star Sergei Belov. There was a gasp as Belov ran straight at the crowd. Then suddenly a pathway appeared. The spectators in that section were soldiers who held platforms above their heads in a carefully choreographed move. Belov was thus able to reach the cauldron by running up a man made and man held runway.
At the time, the handover flag was part of the Opening Ceremony. Montreal hosted the previous Games but as a result of the boycott Canada did not send a team to Moscow. Neither did Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau attend. Instead the ceremonial flag was borne by Sandra Henderson and Stephan Prefontaine, the two youngsters who'd lit the cauldron four years previously.
The Soviet Union boycotted Los Angeles 1984 and did not bring the handover flag either. Instead it was left to Belgian IOC Prince Alexandre de Merode who escorted two survivors of the 1920 USA team in Antwerp. The flag itself was held by Louis Guirandou N'diaye.
The ritual has now changed and an Olympic city receives the flag four years before their Games. Thus, the handover flag is currently in London's City Hall.
Hollywood producer David Wolper was given the role of ceremonies commissioner for 1984. The Los Angeles Coliseum staged an Opening Ceremony for the second time. The show itself was full of glitz and glamour.
A rocket man powered by jet pack set the tone as giant golden balloons picked out the word "Welcome".
There were 84 grand pianos on the steps of the Coliseum. The pianists dressed head to toe in blue played Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin.
From behind bulletproof glass, Ronald Reagan became the first incumbent American President to open the Games.
Suddenly in the tunnel the flame could be seen, it was carried by Gina Hemphill, the granddaughter of Jesse Owens. Such was the secrecy that her name had even been added to the list of flag bearers as part of the deception. She passed the Torch to 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson. He lit the fuse and the flame travelled through the Olympic rings to light the cauldron.
Heavy rain had fallen in the run up to Seoul 1988 but the morning of the Opening Ceremony was clear as a flotilla made its way up the mighty Han river towards the stadium.
Inside, a traditional display featured taekwondo and other martial arts, and a seven-year-old boy Yoon Tae Woong playing with a hoop. He had been born on the very day Seoul was awarded the Games in 1981.
The great Korean marathon hero Sohn Kee Chung entered the Stadium with the Flame, but the cauldron was lit by three young people representing sport, education and art.
This was the last summer Olympic Opening Ceremony to take place completely in daylight.
Ever since, the Ceremonies have been held by night to allow theatrical magic to take full effect. This was seen at Barcelona 1992 where Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo shot his spectacular arrow to light the flame.
"I was practically a robot," he said later of the concentration needed to hit the target.
That opening had featured one of the great set pieces of Olympic ceremony. A huge Olympic flag had been stretched across the field to cover all the competitors. It was the ultimate piece of symbolism.
In 1996 in Atlanta, the Ceremony was struck by tragedy when a Polish official Evgeniusz Pietrasik collapsed during the Parade of Nations and later died.
Unusually, the flame was born into the Stadium through a tunnel by local hero Evander Holyfield. He emerged centre stage and ran with Greek champion 100m hurdles champion Voula Patalidou. The flame was collected by swimmer Janet Evans, but just as the crowd had started to believe she would light the Torch, a familiar figure emerged from the darkness to light a taper that would ignite the cauldron. Muhammad Ali had been Olympic light heavyweight champion in 1960 and was arguably the most famous sportsman in the world.
In 2000, Sydney's was the last Opening Ceremony before London to feature live animals. In this case, horses heralded a pageant that depicted the story of the "Land Downunder".
All the final Torchbearers were women to recognise the 100th anniversary of the first women to take part in the Games. After a cavalcade of great Australian gold medallists came a champion-in-waiting. Cathy Freeman, of aboriginal heritage, was an appropriate choice to light the cauldron. This was the first time that the lighting was the final dramatic act of the Ceremony, even though the cauldron very nearly stalled on its journey into position.
Four years later in Athens, many wondered whether there had been a last minute change when windsurfer Nikos Kaklamanakis strode up to light an unusual cauldron which pivoted and swooped down to meet him.
The monumental Beijing 2008 Ceremony is still fresh in the memory, from the dramatic opening by 2008 drummers, the performance centre stage by Lang Lang and possibly the most dramatic lighting of the Flame there will ever be by gymnast Li Ning.
Philip Barker, one of the world's most renowned sports historians, is the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley recently. To order a copy click here.