25 Coolest Moments in Olympic Opening Ceremony History

A scene from the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
A scene from the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. / Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

Originally scheduled for summer 2020, the Tokyo Olympics were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis hasn't ended, but Japan is still planning to kick off a "safe and secure" Olympics on July 23 of this year. In anticipation of the event, we're looking back on the most epic moments from opening ceremonies past. From jet packs to a parachuting queen, here's what Japan has to follow in the summer of 2021.

1. Los Angeles 1984 // Olympic Theme Debuts

Composer John Williams.
Composer John Williams. / Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Today, it's impossible to hear John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" without thinking of the Olympics. But no one had heard the composition before it debuted at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. That year, the score reached instant icon status and has been used as the theme for every Olympics held since.

2. London 2012 // The Queen Jumps From a Helicopter

Person jumping from helicopter.
Person jumping from helicopter. / Lars Baron, Getty Images

What's more British than James Bond and the Queen? Her majesty and Agent 007 jumping from a helicopter to kick off the 2012 London Olympics. Though Queen Elizabeth II and Daniel Craig did appear together in footage that aired before the jump, the actual skydiving was done by stuntmen.

3. Beijing 2008 // 2008 Drummers

Drummers in a stadium.
Drummers in a stadium. / Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

More than a decade after the fact, the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing games is still regarded as one of the greatest in Olympic history. It's hard to narrow down the four-hour event to just a few memorable moments, but the synchronized drum performance definitely makes the list. As a nod to the date, 2008 musicians filled the stadium to play the fou, a 4000-year-old Chinese percussion instrument. The choreographed precision of the drummers created a stunning spectacle—especially when viewed from above.

4. Atlanta 1996 // Muhammad Ali Carries the Torch

Muhammad Ali with torch.
Muhammad Ali with torch. / Michael Cooper, Allsport/Getty Images

One of the most anticipated moments of the 1996 opening ceremony was the reveal of who would light the centennial torch—and the appearance of Muhammad Ali in that role was met with approval and awe. His iconic torch-lighting took place 36 years after he earned his gold medal and 12 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The surprise moment was among the most memorable of the events, but it almost didn't happen; the tower leading up to the torch would have been too difficult for Ali to climb in his condition. Officials worked around that by having him light a fuse that led up to the cauldron instead.

5. Nagano 1998 // International Performance of "Ode to Joy"

Olympic athletes.
Olympic athletes. / Jamie Squire, Getty Images

In 1998, video-chatting with someone across the globe in real time was still considered stuff of the future. That's part of what made the rendition of Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" at the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics so impressive. As an orchestra performed live in Nagano, choruses in Berlin, Cape Town, Beijing, New York, and Sydney joined in via satellite feeds. On top of wowing audiences, the moment served as a meaningful symbol of world unity.

6. Barcelona 1992 // An Archer Lights the Cauldron

Man with flaming arrow.
Man with flaming arrow. / Pau Barrena, AFP/Getty Images

Though opening ceremonies vary wildly from year to year, the lighting of the torch is one theme they all share. This portion can be straightforward, but in 1992 Barcelona decided to get creative. The cauldron was ignited by Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo, who shot a flaming arrow across the stadium. In terms of flair, no torch lighting has topped it since.

7. Sydney 2000 // 120 Horsemen

Sydney opera house.
Sydney opera house. / Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

The opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney was one of the most cinematic in history, and it was the very first moment that set the tone. A lone horseman came galloping into the empty stadium, and at the crack of his whip 120 more people riding horses and holding Olympic flags followed him in.

8. Albertville 1992 // The Air Ballet

Air ballet performance.
Air ballet performance. / Pascal Rondeau, Allsport/Getty Images

The opening ceremony of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, channeled a Cirque du Soleil vibe. This was most apparent in the air ballet sequence. Dancers strapped into ribbons twirled and floated around a giant pole in the middle of the arena. The performance is regarded as one of the most mesmerizing of any opening ceremony.

9. Lillehammer 1994 // Skiing With the Eternal Flame

Skier holding torch.
Skier holding torch. / Bob Martin, Allsport/Getty Images

The torch lighting at the 1994 Winter Olympics was an exciting display of athleticism. It started with Norwegian skier Stein Gruben skiing down a steep slope and clearing a 70-meter jump all while holding the eternal flame. Olympic bronze medalist Gunnar Fidjestø was originally tasked with the stunt, but he injured himself in a practice jump two days before the event.

10. Athens 2004 // Björk's Dress

Bjork performing.
Bjork performing. / Donald Miralle, Getty Images

Björk debuted her single "Oceania" at the opening ceremony of the summer games in Athens. The song is noteworthy on its own, but what really made her performance special was her giant dress that doubled as a projection screen. As the fabric rippled across the stadium, it displayed an image of the world map.

11. Calgary 1988 // Seventh-Grader Lights the Cauldron

Person lighting Olympic torch.
Person lighting Olympic torch. / Jamie Squire, Getty Images

The cauldron that holds the eternal flame has often been lit by superstar athletes, but in 1988, Canada chose 12-year-old Robyn Perry to complete the final leg of the torch's journey. The young lady was an amateur figure skater at the time.

12. Los Angeles 1984 // Jet Pack Flight

Man flying in jet pack.
Man flying in jet pack. / Tony Duffy, Getty Images

One of the most futuristic stunts in any Olympic opening ceremony took place 37 years ago. Bill Suitor dazzled spectators when he zipped around the Los Angeles stadium in a real, functioning jet pack. He landed the gig by working as a test pilot on the jet pack project for Bell Aerospace. He told CNN in 2007 that trying to navigate the rocket belt felt like "trying to stand on a beach ball in a swimming pool."

13. Beijing 2008 // Beijing Fireworks Show

Fireworks over Olympic stadium.
Fireworks over Olympic stadium. / Shaun Botterill, Getty Images

Another memorable scene from Beijing's opening ceremony was the epic fireworks show. Colorful pyrotechnics were launched from the rim of the stadium as more fireworks outside lit up the sky above the city. It was later revealed that many of the fireworks that aired in the ceremony were edited in with computers because it would have been too difficult to capture every explosion live.

14. Moscow 1980 // Human Pyramids

Athletes on a field.
Athletes on a field. / Alexander Makarov, Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0

The 1980 Moscow Olympics were controversial from the beginning, with several major nations boycotting the games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That didn't stop the Soviet Union from putting on a dazzling show for the opening ceremony. If attendees remember one spectacle, it's likely the colorful, human pyramids that filled the arena for the event's grand finale.

15. Seoul 1988 // Olympic Rings Skydivers

Olympic flag.
Olympic flag. / Getty Images/Getty Images North America

The five Olympic rings have been a part of the opening ceremony since the Antwerp games in 1920, but in 1988 they were seen like never before. Skydivers dressed in the event’s traditional colors formed the Olympic rings in midair before parachuting into the stadium. It would have likely been the most memorable sight from that year if it hadn't also included doves catching fire in the eternal flame.

16. Sochi 2014 // Russian Police Sing "Get Lucky"

Russian officers singing.
Russian officers singing. / Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Like the Moscow Olympics, the 2014 games Russia hosted in Sochi weren't without controversy. But at least the opening ceremony gave us one of the more delightfully bizarre moments in the history of the event: a chorus of Russian police officers covering Daft Punk's international hit "Get Lucky." The cops were members of the Russian Red Army Choir.

17. Athens 1906 // First Parade of Nations

Athens Olympics.
Athens Olympics. / Getty Images

The Olympics as we know them today were just starting to take shape in the early 20th century. The Athens games in 1906 included the first parade of nations, one of the most recognizable opening ceremony traditions. The procession of teams carrying their home countries' flags introduced a theme of national pride to the Olympics that's still part of its DNA today.

18. Barcelona 1992 // Freddie Mercury's "Barcelona"

Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony.
Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony. / Michel Gangne, AFP/Getty Images

Freddie Mercury died less than a year before the games took place, but his memory was very much alive at the Olympics opening ceremony in Barcelona in 1992. The Queen frontman was approached in the 1980s to pen a theme song for the event to sing with Barcelona-based opera singer Montserrat Caballé. The result, "Barcelona," became one of the best known Olympic songs, but Mercury was never able to sing it at the opening ceremony as planned; a video of an earlier Mercury and Caballé performance was played instead.

19. Tokyo 1964 // Hiroshima Baby Lights the Cauldron

Man carrying olympic torch.
Man carrying olympic torch. / Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The torch lighting at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo is memorable for its poignancy. That year marked the first time the games were held in an Asian city, and Tokyo wanted to open the games with something that symbolized progress toward world peace and their resilience following World War II. Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945—the same day the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city—was chosen to carry the torch to the cauldron.

20. Rio 2016 // Gisele's Catwalk

Giselle walking at Olympic opening ceremony.
Giselle walking at Olympic opening ceremony. / Franck Fife, AFP/Getty Images

Few people have the star power to steal a show by simply walking in a straight line, but that's exactly what Gisele Bündchen accomplished at Rio's opening ceremony. All eyes were on the Brazilian supermodel as she strutted across the stadium's 400-foot catwalk. But she may have been enjoying her time in the spotlight a little too much—her pace was so slow that an entire other scheduled segment had to be cut.

21. London 2012 // Mr. Bean Shows Up

Rowan Atkinson looking at wrist.
Rowan Atkinson looking at wrist. / Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

London turned the opening ceremony of the 2012 games into a quirky ode to British pop culture. While there were plenty of big-name appearances that night, one of the most pleasant surprises came from Rowan Atkinson, the actor best known for his character Mr. Bean. The comedian playing "Chariots of Fire" along with the London Symphony Orchestra might go down as one of the most hilarious moments in opening ceremony history.

22. Sydney 2000 // Underwater Extravaganza

Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.
Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. / Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP/Getty Images

With 16,000 miles of coastline, Australia is hugely influenced by the sea. The nation celebrated its neighboring oceans by transforming the Olympic stadium into a massive aquarium during the opening ceremony. Colorful puppets of fish, eels, and jellyfish floated through the space as the arena floor filled with rippling blue waves. In a country known for the world's most famous coral reef, it was a fitting tribute.

23. Moscow 1980 // Massive Card Stunt

Picture of bear in stadium crowd.
Picture of bear in stadium crowd. / AFP/Getty Images

It's a trick you've seen at many sporting events, but for the Olympics, it must happen on a much larger scale. At the opening ceremony in Moscow, crowd members simultaneously held up hundreds of cards to form an image of Misha the Bear, that year's Olympic mascot.

24. Turin 2006 // Pavarotti's Final Performance

Italian opera singer.
Italian opera singer. / Getty Images/Stringer

Pavarotti didn't stay out of the limelight for long after retiring on his 70th birthday in 2005. He made an appearance at the opening ceremony of the Turin Winter Olympics and sang the aria "Nessun Dorma." He died the following year.

25. Montreal 1976 // Teen Athletes Light the Cauldron

Two teens stand next to the Olympic cauldron.
Two teens stand next to the Olympic cauldron. / Tony Duffy, Getty Images

The Olympic cauldron was ignited by two teens at the start of the 1976 Montreal winter games. The lighters, 16-year-old track star Stéphane Préfontaine and 15-year-old Toronto runner Sandra Henderson, were chosen to present Canada as a young, progressive nation.

A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.