5 Memorable Moments from Olympic Opening Ceremonies

Torchbearers light the Olympic torch at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Torchbearers light the Olympic torch at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. / Simon Bruty/Getty Images

As the Olympic Games get set to kick off in Tokyo with the opening ceremony on Friday, we know that the next couple of weeks will feature some fantastic athletic stories to inspire us, amaze us, and occasionally make us laugh. But don't discount the opening ceremony itself as a chance for some memorable Olympic moments: Past ceremonies have been known to include their own little quirks, disasters, and political flaps. Here are some of the most interesting.

1. The Olympic Torch Roasts Some Doves

The 1988 Seoul Olympics opening ceremonies started out smoothly, with South Korea's President Roh Tae Woo officially opening the Games, the raising of the Olympic flag, and the playing of the Olympic hymn. The customary release of doves went off without a hitch, and the crowd's excitement grew as former Korean Olympians ran into the stadium to finish the torch relay.

Things got less picturesque, though, when the final members of the relay team ascended the torch cauldron by riding an elevating platform. When they reached the top, it became clear that several of the doves had acted like doves when they'd been released: They flew around for a bit before finding a nice high place to perch. Instead of being frightened by the cauldron lighting team, the birds seemed to just eye them curiously. Bad move. When the relay torches hit the cauldron, it went up in flames, taking a fair number of doves with it. Organizers later discontinued the live dove release and chose to go the symbolic route. If for some reason you want to watch the horrific debacle, you can see it in the video above.

2. Paralympic Archer Gets One Shot at the Cauldron

While you probably remember the 1992 Barcelona Games for the American basketball Dream Team's dominance or South Africa's return to competition following a 28-year ban, the Olympics also featured one of the coolest cauldron-lightings. Rather than having someone simply walk up to the cauldron and light it with a relay torch, organizers decided to go for the dramatic. When the torch arrived in the middle of the stadium, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo used the flame to ignite an arrow, which he then fired over the crowd toward the cauldron perched on the outer rim of the stadium. The cauldron was gradually releasing fuel into the air, so when the flaming arrow passed over it, the whole thing ignited in one of the better spectacles in Olympic history.

3. Hitler Leaves His Mark on the Olympics

The 1936 Games in Berlin will forever be remembered as the “Hitler Olympics,” in which Jesse Owens used his track triumphs to underscore the flimsiness of Nazi ideology. However, many of the traditions now associated with the Games didn't gain steam until Hitler's brain trust employed them to add some extra pageantry. The relay of the Olympic flame from Olympia to the site of the Games, for instance, was the idea of Carl Diem, one of Hitler's planners. According to Hitler's logic, the relay reinforced the kinship of his Aryan nation to its ancient Greek forerunners. The rings of the Olympic flag also didn't gain much traction until Diem prominently displayed them at the lighting of the torch at Delphi. After seeing the rings carved into stone, people fell under the misconception that the symbol traced its roots to the ancient Games, when in actuality Pierre de Coubertin only designed the rings two decades earlier.

For his part, Hitler was uncharacteristically taciturn at the ceremonies; the only words he uttered were, “I proclaim open the Olympic Games of Berlin, celebrating the XIth Olympiad of the modern era.” Perhaps he didn't want to get upstaged by the spectacle, which included the doomed Hindenburg airship floating over the games and a goose-stepping delegation of Bulgarian athletes.

4. Protests Plague the Soviet Olympics Games

In America, the 1980 Games in Moscow were pretty noteworthy because the Western powers boycotted the festivities. The protest was due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it was a favor the Eastern Bloc countries would return when Los Angeles hosted the Games in 1984. However, other countries chose to show up and compete while still subtly protesting the Afghanistan conflict. Some countries competed without taking part in the Opening Parade, while 16 countries paraded under the Olympic flag instead of their respective countries'. (Their logic was that the Olympic flag was a symbol of peace.) When these delegations won medals later in the Games, organizers played the Olympic hymn rather than their respective national anthems. Those who didn’t attend missed one of the strangest quirks in the history of any ceremony: Two cosmonauts appeared on a giant video screen to greet the athletes from space.

5. London’s “Creepy Baby”

The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, directed by Danny Boyle, featured an homage to the Industrial revolution, a game of cricket, many Mary Poppinses vanquishing British literary villains, appearances by James Bond, David Beckham, Mr. Bean, and Queen Elizabeth II (and her corgis), the “queen” jumping from a helicopter, and much, much more. But the moment that got everyone talking was the giant head of a baby with a sheet for its body, which appeared during the ceremony’s tribute to the UK’s National Health Service (at about the 54-minute mark in this video). Some have said it was a nod to the staff of the Great Ormond Hospital; others have posited it was actually about ultrasound technology, which was invented by Scottish doctors; but according to The Guardian, “the nurses collectively delivered [the] giant baby.” Whatever its intention, the baby—and the NHS segment as a whole—left many who were watching pretty puzzled. “The dancing sick-kids salute to the National Health Service, complete with a Mary Poppins air raid and a giant Franken-baby? Much less fun, and more than a bit bizarre,” one journalist wrote.

A version of this story ran in 2008; it has been updated for 2021.