Which of the opening ceremonies reigns supreme? The result may (or may not) surprise you. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Which of the opening ceremonies reigns supreme? The result may (or may not) surprise you. (Image: Tina Tiller)

TelevisionJuly 23, 2021

All the Summer Olympics opening ceremonies, ranked

Which of the opening ceremonies reigns supreme? The result may (or may not) surprise you. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Which of the opening ceremonies reigns supreme? The result may (or may not) surprise you. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Ahead of tonight’s opening ceremony marking the kickoff of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Sam Brooks took to YouTube in a bid to rank all the opening ceremonies from Olympics past.

As a fan of not only theatre but also massive expenditures of time and resources, I love an Olympics opening ceremony. It’s the glitziest nationalistic propaganda the world has ever known and we eat it all up. It’s Stage Challenge with a budget and a bizarre sense of patriotism.

I’ve been watching these ceremonies live since Sydney in 2000, and am regularly amazed at just how many marionettes one nation can amass just to demonstrate to the rest of the world how good they are at being a nation. However, I wanted to go back and see what opening ceremonies used to look like. 

Turns out a lot of them really suck. . I’ve learned that what unites all the world is a predilection for waving sheets around, banging on lots of drums and making people dress up as inanimate objects.

Here are my rankings of every summer opening ceremony in modern Olympics history, including the ones that never happened:

28. Berlin, 1936

It’s the only opening ceremony where Hitler was in attendance.

27. Paris, 1900

No opening ceremony is still better than one with Hitler in attendance.

26. St. Louis, 1904

As above, there was no official opening ceremony for these Olympics. But according to reports, dignitaries wore “silk hats” at an event on opening day. (There’s a great podcast episode on the shitshow that was the entire 1904 Olympics that I highly recommend.)

25. London, 1908

Unremarkable, but lots of controversy over hats.

24. Stockholm, 1912

According to official reports, also unremarkable.

23. Los Angeles, 1932

Unremarkable, according to reports, and also me, after reading reports.

22. Munich, 1972

There’s not a lot of reporting around this one, and the actual footage of it is grainy. You can probably understand why the opening ceremony isn’t what we remember most about the 1972 Munich Olympics.

21. Antwerp, 1920

The first time the Olympic flag was raised, and when the Olympic Oath was introduced. Do you know what the Olympic Oath is? Of course not.

20. Paris, 1924

Unfun fact: This was the Olympics that introduced the closing ceremony. Also, the opening ceremony was literally just the athlete procession. I can see fit people walking by any time I want, Paris. Next.

19. London, 1948

They released 7000 pigeons at this one. Think of the upper limit of pigeons you’re willing to be in the same vicinity as. Now think about how much lower that number is than 7000. Absolutely terrifying.

The Birds (1963, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). (The 1964 Tokyo Olympics, photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

18. Tokyo, 1964

This one also had pigeons. It just makes me think of the amount of admin required to tame pigeons, or at least to corral them. I only pray that this week’s opening ceremony has fewer pigeons, or god willing, no pigeons at all.

The first ride of Tokyo’s groundbreaking bullet train was scheduled to coincide with the Olympics. I can’t help but think about how many of these Olympic pigeons met their end by flying straight into it.

17. Mexico City, 1968

My only note for this one is: “Birds.” I think you understand my view on this issue by now.

16. Rome, 1960

The Pope was in attendance. It’s like I always say: if you can’t bring the Pope to the Olympics, bring the Olympics to the Pope.

They released doves at this one, which seems more pleasant than pigeons, but still less pleasant than zero birds flying around, shitting on everyone.

15. Helsinki, 1952

This one is just people walking through the streets, looking pretty miserable.

Queen Wilhelmina, a boss. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

14. Amsterdam, 1928

The actual ceremony appears to have been unremarkable – I promise there’s some actual good ones coming soon – but Queen Wilhemina boycotted the ceremony because she believed the Olympics promoted paganism. Queen Wilhemina was later an avid supporter of the Dutch Resistance, established a cabinet full of largely people who participated in said resistance, and wrote an autobiography titled Lonely but Not Alone. The last good queen? You decide!

13. Melbourne, 1956

Nothing really happened here, but the commentary on the clip I watched called Melbourne a “provincial small town of just over one million people”. Take that, Melbourne.

12. Athens, 1896 

Reports from this ceremony indicate that nine bands, 150 choir singers and no birds were in attendance at this ceremony, which immediately vaults it above “no ceremony”, “one attended by the leader of the Third Reich” and “one with hundreds, if not thousands of birds” in my estimation.

11. Montreal, 1976


Or sort of. This one mostly just had a lot of line-dancing, which my Canadian colleague Justin tells me is not really a Montrealian thing, but is closer to a thing in the western provinces. Canada facts!

Yes, that’s a jetpack. Los Angeles, 1984

10. Los Angeles, 1984

Okay, this is where we get to the proper ceremonies, which tend to open with an hour of cultural celebration/propaganda, followed by 90 minutes of the fittest people on the planet walking and waving, some more cultural stuff, and then an ostentatious lighting of a cauldron.

It’s here that you’ll notice that, uh, these ceremonies aren’t super willing to engage with the actual history of their country. The Los Angeles opening ceremony is a prime example of that: it’s a celebration of American success in the 20th century. I wonder why they don’t want to go any earlier than that!!!

At any rate, this is a case of more money than artistry. There’s a dude who flies in on a jetpack, Etta James singing ‘Where the Saints Go Marching In’ and a southern “hoedown”, which has no place on your screen or mine.

Celine Dion, not American.

9. Atlanta, 1996

This one had Celine Dion, who is kind of famously not American. It also had Pips overlord Gladys Knight, singing the hell out of ‘Georgia on My Mind’. Atlanta went a step further than Los Angeles by including a long segment called “Summertime” which actually acknowledged the struggles of Black people in the American south. (Neither this ceremony, nor Los Angeles’, referenced or acknowledged any Native American culture at all).

Despite whatever the above might suggest, the Atlanta ceremony was all a bit safe. There were some puppets…

… and some birds (thankfully not real)…


Even Celine Dion is uncharacteristically muted here. Her heart had yet to go on, and she wasn’t quite letting her diva flag fly yet.

8. Seoul, 1988

Look, I watched all of these in chronological order and Seoul was the point where I started to get incredibly bored of groups of people making shapes with their bodies. Oh, you all learned how to stand in a circle so it looks like a ring from above? How damn clever. This is why you shouldn’t watch more than one of these things every four years.

Seoul is a bit more spectacular than its predecessors, but still kind of boring. The one fun stunt, which I can’t imagine any ceremony would replicate now, is a bunch of skydivers forming the Olympic rings with their bodies. Which, OK, I admit, is kind of impressive. It’s basically just artfully falling, but credit where it’s due.

I can’t help but think about the many, many kids who participated in the Seoul opening ceremony and how they are now in their 40s. Time comes for us all.

Gives a whole new (creepy) meaning to ‘Russian dolls’

7. Moscow, 1980

Oh, hell yes. Moscow was the first ceremony where they really amped it up, and those Russians/Soviets did not disappoint. There are Greek chariots! There are girls dancing with little dolls (terrifyingly), boys dancing with fake horses (weird), and a shitton of gymnasts demonstrating that Russia doesn’t just have the best gymnasts but the most gymnasts.

Moscow also started the trend of making people dress up like things that are certainly not people. As you’ll see in screenshots throughout this piece, there are host countries that are good at this and host countries that really are not. Russia ranks somewhere in the middle.

6. Rio de Janeiro, 2016

What makes the Rio de Janeiro ceremony unique is that it’s actually willing to showcase the fact that not everything is great in the host country. A significant part of this ceremony depicts the conflicts that tore through Brazil in the 20th century – conflicts which, to put it mildly, were messy.

Another segment acknowledges climate change, through a lovely short film voiced by actors Fernanda Montenegro and Judi Dench. I’m torn on the use of film in these opening ceremonies – it feels like a way to skate around the spectacle of the whole thing, while throwing in some celebs for good measure – but god knows nobody needs to see climate change acknowledged through dance, interpretive or otherwise.

Beyond the social commentary, the Rio opening ceremony also looks like it was just a great party! This one definitely seems like it was the most fun to be part of, with a lot of dancing, clubby songs and carnivalesque good vibes all around.

Apparently when Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen (above, obvs) did her last catwalk strut ever at this ceremony, she walked too slowly so they had to cut another segment to make up time. I don’t believe this rumour! Gisele Bundchen is very good at that sort of walking, maybe even one of the best in the world. She walked at the speed she was meant to walk at!

5. London, 2012.

Before you get all up in arms about me putting London this low, I entreat you to consider this: how much of your fondness for this ceremony is based on the first 30 minutes or so? Because I’ll grant you, watching the Industrial Revolution recreated by a cast of thousands, half of whom seem dressed like Jennifer Saunders in Muppet Treasure Island (see above), soundtracked by an absolutely boss synth score (courtesy of Underworld and Dame Evelyn Griggs, and listenable to right here) is maybe the best 30 minutes of any opening ceremony, ever. Even the short film featuring the Queen and James Bond parachuting to earth is pretty cute.

But the rest of this is absolute tedium, my friends. JK Rowling, before she became the sort of villain that she could write into one of her own books, introduces a terrifying ode to the villains of children’s literature, before they’re vanquished by paratrooper Mary Poppins. It’s as terrible as it sounds .

There’s an interminable sequence that follows a love story set to British pop hits, which by all rights should probably feature a lot more cocaine than it does. Rowan Atkinson (for legal reasons not actually playing Mr. Bean but come on) shows up for a comedy bit. A massive choir sings ‘Danny Boy’, a song that should be reserved for kids’ talent shows, funerals and 2.30am at the pub.

Nobody watches the Olympics opening ceremonies for a laugh, a cohesive narrative, or a love story. So points off, moving on.

4. Barcelona, 1992.

Oh hell yes! This is the sort of weird shit that I am so deeply into. I have no idea what the hell is going on, because commentators apparently only started to narrate Olympic ceremonies in 2000. There are a lot of puppets in this one!

The cauldron is lit by someone firing an arrow!

People dress up as Picasso paintings!

There’s a legit awesome flamenco performance.

There’s a Terminator that shows up for some reason.

The largest set piece is a massive battle scene that leaves the cast covered in fake blood, and it’s all pretty terrifying and something that I deeply loved watching.

I feel this is the ceremony where someone, somewhere, realised they didn’t have to be so literal with everything, and I thank that person from the bottom of my heart. However, it gets points off for a long segment that is just selections from various non-Spanish operas. ‘Casta Diva’ is great, but that’s not yours, Spain!

Also: Barcelona has, hands down, the greatest Olympic theme song of all time.

3. Athens, 2004.

Athen is the most minimalist of the bigger ceremonies, which is a bit like calling someone the “quietest drag queen.”

Spartan (no pun intended) as the performances may be, it’s also full of moments that are exciting. expressionistic and frankly, deeply weird. When Björk singing a song from the point of view of the ocean is the most normal thing about your show, you know you’ve created something special. Where other ceremonies go for scale, Athens tends to let one performer represent one single thing. A lady playing a human statue here…

… a weird sculpture floating above a centaur here…

Normal stuff like that! There’s also this moment where a lady’s pregnant belly glows:

It works in contrast to the other ceremonies, and it lets you focus on every single performer and what they’re meant to represent.

2. Sydney, 2000.

Sydney signalled another step up for the opening ceremony oeuvre. Scale and spectacle had been the goal for 20 years, but Sydney at the turn of a new century was where the artistry took a giant leap forward. It was when the opening ceremonies became less a celebration, and more a statement of intent. This ceremony says: “This is why we matter. This is why we’re hosting these games.”

What makes Sydney’s ceremony interesting was that it was the first to really acknowledge the indigenous people of the nation, and it did so in a big way. A good half hour of the ceremony is dedicated to Australia’s Indigenous populations, and while I can’t remember what it felt like to watch at the time, I can imagine it was like nothing anybody had ever seen before.

Sydney gives me what I want from an opening ceremony: It’s spectacular, it’s silly, and there’s at least one “oh holy shit!” moment every 10 minutes or so. There’s also people dressed like this:

And this:

Unfortunately, there are also hundreds of horses, which just makes me think how bad everything smelled. 

Human formation on point: Beijing, 2008

1. Beijing, 2008.

Yeah, sometimes it’s obvious.

Setting aside the politics of the host nation, because those are some treacherous waters and I do not have my lifejacket on, Beijing’s is the ideal opening ceremony. It operates on such a huge scale that every moment, every act, could be the climax of any other opening ceremony. There are thousands of performers.

On a meta-level, Beijing also gives viewers the drama that we need. The little girl lip-syncing for her life? Scandalous. The CGI fireworks? Incredible. The dude running around the rim of the stadium? Once in a lifetime. Jackie Chan singing at the end? Yes, that happened, and it was great.

Beijing also nails one thing better than any other: human formations. One person doing something silly looks dumb. A hundred people? Still silly, but better. A thousand people? Incredible, regardless of what they’re doing, sign me up.

It is the ideal of what an opening ceremony is intended to be: a noisy celebration of culture that screams “We’re awesome!!!” while whispering “and let’s forget, for several hours, all the bad things that we’ve done okay thanks byeee!”. Propaganda, thy name is opening ceremony and thy instruments are birds, drums, and puppets.

Coverage of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony will start at 10.15pm New Zealand time. Watch it on Sky’s Olympics pop-up channel Tokyo Gold, on TVNZ 1, or on TVNZ OnDemand.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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