What Was the Best Olympics Opening Ceremony of All Time?
As the Tokyo Olympics loom, we rank the top 10 production extravaganzas
En español | This is no ordinary Olympic season. Postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were rescheduled for July 2021 and are now scheduled to kick off with the Opening Ceremony on July 23.
As the day has drawn closer, a pandemic surge in Japan has forced organizers to hold the events without spectators (remember the NBA bubble season?). But the show must go on, so we can still tune in to that opening ceremony (and you know we will — there's even a live morning broadcast on NBC starting at 6:55 a.m. on July 23). Here's how to watch because these extravaganzas have always been a showcase for a host nation to celebrate international unity and — quite frankly — show off a bit.
These days, the blockbuster spectacles are equal parts Super Bowl halftime show, Broadway musical and Cirque du Soleil, complete with thousands of performers, award-winning creative directors, and budgets that could fund a small army. So while we wait to see what comes of the Tokyo Opening Ceremonies, we've got a winner's stand of the very best Opening Ceremonies, ranked from number 10 to number 1. Which show takes home the gold? Read on!
10th place: Tokyo, 1964
Notable performers: None
Why it was great: This year's Summer Olympics are the second to be held in the Japanese capital, which, in 1964, became the first host city in Asia. These were also the first Olympic Games to be broadcast live (and in color!) via satellite. The result was that viewers from as far away as Europe and North America could see such highlights as the release of thousands of colorful balloons and 8,000 pigeons into the sky and five jets skywriting the Olympic rings above the crowd.
Memorable moment: When the Olympic cauldron was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, or “the Hiroshima Baby,” who was born in Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bombing 19 years earlier.
Watch it: Tokyo 1964 Opening Ceremony, on YouTube
9th place: Atlanta, 1996
Notable performers: Gladys Knight (77), Celine Dion (53), John Williams (89)
Why it was great: To celebrate the first — and thus far only — Olympics to be hosted by a city in the American South, the event was filled with regional nods, including teams of marching bands, cheerleaders and steppers, and Atlanta native Knight singing “Georgia on My Mind.” James Earl Jones, 90, read quotes from famous writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner, followed by a dramatic interpretive dance about rebirth after the Civil War. Going against the theme, a Canadian, Dion, closed out the show, but her “The Power of the Dream” was one of the best Olympic anthems in recent memory, so we'll allow it!
Memorable moment: When gold medalist Muhammad Ali, visibly stricken with Parkinson's disease, lit the Olympic cauldron after more than 10,000 torchbearers had carried the flame to Atlanta.
Watch it: Atlanta 1996 Opening Ceremony, on YouTube
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8th place: Torino, 2006
Notable performers: Luciano Pavarotti, Sophia Loren (86), Yoko Ono (88), Peter Gabriel (71)
Why it was great: Italy's message to the world was that it's a leader in every form of art and design — and it has been for hundreds of years. This triumphant display of national pride included costumes by Giorgio Armani (87) and Moschino, music by Luciano Pavarotti and even an automotive display by a Ferrari F2005. An art-themed section whisked viewers through centuries of culture, from Dante to Botticelli (with Czech-Italian supermodel Eva Herzigová emerging from a shell like The Birth of Venus) to the Futurist movement to the greatest Italian export of the 20th century, Sophia Loren, who was one of eight women carrying the Olympic flag.
Memorable moment: When Pavarotti sang the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini's Turandot, in what would prove to be his final public performance.
Watch it: Torino 2006 Opening Ceremony, on YouTube
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7th place: Los Angeles, 1984
Notable performers: Etta James, John Williams (89)
Why it was great: The “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” is such an iconic anthem that you might assume it's been around for centuries, but the rousing classical number was written by famed film composer John Williams for the 1984 Summer Games. Held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, these Opening Ceremonies were an extended tribute to American music, including an 800-member marching band with players from every state, a 410-dancer hoedown-themed ballet, 84 grand pianos playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” and a 300-singer gospel choir that accompanied Etta James on “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Memorable moment: When “Rocketman” Bill Suitor flew into the Coliseum using a Bell Rocket Belt, a hydrogen peroxide-fueled jet pack.
Watch it: Los Angeles 1984 Opening Ceremony highlights, at olympics.com
6th place: Rio de Janeiro, 2016
Notable performers: Singers Caetano Veloso (78) and Gilberto Gil (79), Gisele Bündchen
Why it was great: Event co-director Fernando Meirelles, 65 — known for the films City of God and The Constant Gardener — decided to keep the budget low, so as not to waste funds in a country that was struggling economically. The average viewer would never know the festivities cost only 10 percent of what was spent in London in 2012; the celebratory spectacle incorporated Amazonian flora and fauna, Indigenous culture, and samba and bossa nova — with Bündchen strutting across a catwalk as “The Girl from Ipanema."
Memorable moment: When pop star Anitta joined music legends Gil and Veloso in a tribute to Carnival that included members from Rio's 12 samba schools.
5th place: Salt Lake City, 2002
Notable performers: The Chicks, LeAnn Rimes, Kristi Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton (62)
Why it was great: Taking place just five months after the September 11 attacks, this event struck a decidedly somber tone, but its simplicity and patriotism proved immensely moving. Members of the Ute, Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute and Navajo peoples performed a unity stomp dance, and during the Parade of Nations, athletes from around the world waved miniature American flags in a show of solidarity.
Memorable moment: When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang the national anthem as the flag from the Challenger — recovered from the wreckage of the space shuttle — was raised.
4th place: Athens, 2004
Notable performers: Icelandic singer Björk (55), Dutch DJ Tiësto (52)
Why it was great: To celebrate the return of the Olympics to the place of their birth, the ceremony reached way back into the history of Ancient Greece, with a pageant that included centaurs and living statues, mythical gods and Alexander the Great — much of it happening in and around a pool of water that contained more than 500,000 gallons of water. In a fun twist, the Parade of Nations took place in Greek alphabetical order, which meant that Saint Lucia (or Ayia Ayokia in Greek) started the proceedings.
Memorable moment: When Björk's 10,000-square-foot dress unfurled over the athletes on the field and a map of the world was projected onto the fabric.
Watch it: Athens 2004 Opening Ceremony, on YouTube
Bronze medal: Sydney, 2000
Notable performers: Human Nature, Olivia Newton-John (72), singer John Farnham (72)
Why it was great: If Australia hadn't already been on your travel bucket list, it would have been after this dazzling extravaganza, which took viewers on a tour of the continent: to the Great Barrier Reef (for an aerial display among flowy sea creature puppets), to the Outback (for a segment on frontier ingenuity), and even to the suburbs (as dancers with fake Victa lawn mowers “mowed” in the shape of the Olympic rings). Particularly moving was a segment in which more than 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers offered a special welcome to all competing nations.
Memorable moment: When Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron — despite a technical glitch that left the world holding its breath for four minutes as the flame got stuck on its ascent to the top of the stadium.
Watch it: Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony, on YouTube
Silver medal: Beijing, 2008
Notable performers: Singer Liu Huan (57), British soprano Sarah Brightman (60), pianist Lang Lang, Jackie Chan (67)
Why it was great: Everything's bigger in China, where the Opening Ceremonies included a cast of 14,000 (you read that right!) and a reported budget of about $100 million. Dancers holding hidden brushes painted an enormous scroll, astronaut-inspired acrobats maneuvered around a 60-foot suspended planet, and 897 performers worked in unison as blocks in a movable-type printing press (scroll to the 31-minute mark in the video above to see what that looks like!). In one of the most dazzling displays of the night, gymnast Li Ning (58), suspended from wires, ran horizontally along the rim of the Bird's Nest stadium to light the cauldron.
Memorable moment: When 2,008 musicians played the fou, an ancient Chinese percussion instrument, in perfect synchronicity.
Gold medal: London, 2012
Notable performers: Paul McCartney (79), Rowan Atkinson (66), Kenneth Branagh (60), J.K. Rowling (55)
Why it was great: Helmed by Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, 64, the four-hour ceremony showcased the greatest hits of British historical achievements, from the Industrial Revolution and the founding of the National Health Service to its world-class popular music and children's literature (complete with larger-than-life puppets of Captain Hook and the Queen of Hearts). What set this year's festivities apart was a healthy dose of British wit: During one unforgettable segment, Mr. Bean portrayer Rowan Atkinson joined the London Symphony Orchestra to play one repeated note on a synthesizer during “Chariots of Fire."
Memorable moment: When James Bond (played by Daniel Craig, 53) and Queen Elizabeth II (95) appeared to jump out of a helicopter over the stadium. Her Majesty really did appear in the video segment prior to the jump, before she was swapped out for a stunt double.
Watch it: London 2012 Opening Ceremony, on YouTube
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.