As the world’s attention turns to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony — airing Friday morning stateside — take a look back at the most dramatic and emotional moments of opening ceremonies past.
The most expensive Olympics to date ($51 billion) got underway with a spectacular opening ceremony that included dizzying light displays, locomotives, five sailing ships, a giant dancing bear, tributes to Russian arts and literature, and an inflatable replica of St. Basil’s cathedral.
Controversy began long before the Games, however, as Vladimir Putin’s regime was accused of civil rights violations, including anti-LGBTQ measures that made it a crime to provide pro-gay “propaganda” to minors. Would rainbow flags be illegal? And could foreigners be prosecuted? When the German delegation entered Fisht Olympic Stadium wearing bright, rainbow-colored uniforms, many interpreted the garb as a protest and greeted the Germans with thunderous applause.
Adding to the mixed vibes before the opening ceremony, athletes and visitors complained of upside-down toilet lids and flimsy doors in the Olympic Village. The hashtag #sochiproblems became a thing. But the Russians put on a dazzling show that ended in a shock-and-awe-style fireworks display.
Sung barefooted to a hushed crowd in the BC Place Stadium, k.d. lang’s rendition of fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” took on a heartbreaking poignancy at the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Just hours earlier, Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed on his final practice run down the nearby luge track.
The opening ceremony was hastily dedicated to him, with the Canadian and Olympic flags raised only to half-staff and a moment of silence in his honor. The tone of the ceremony was already more muted than the mega-production in Beijing two and a half years earlier.
Then came a technical hiccup, and cameras caught hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, basketball star Steve Nash, skier Nancy Greene, wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen, and speed skater Catriona Le May Doan looking alternately perplexed and annoyed as they waited for hydraulics to lift them to light the cauldron. Only four of the platforms eventually rose, leaving Le May Doan stranded with a flaming torch.
Some called the Vancouver ceremony the worst ever. But there were moments of magic, such as a snowboarder shooting through a flaming Olympic ring and projections on the floor of the stadium gorgeously rippling with images of killer whales.
The Opening Ceremony at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin, Italy, was a fitting blend of old and new, with nods to Italian Renaissance and baroque art, fiery ice skaters, a shaman striking an anvil, and athletes converging around heart-shaped center of the floor.
The cauldron with the Olympic flame stood more than 500 feet high, the tallest in Winter Olympics history. And Yoko Ono read free-verse poetry to set up Peter Gabriel singing her late husband John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
But the most memorable performance of the night was the finale, when a massive curtain parted and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti performed the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” for the last time. The legendary singer had wrapped up his farewell tour two years earlier, and he died after a battle with cancer the following year. As though sensing the end was near, the crowd of 35,000 rose to give him its longest and loudest ovation.
2002 Salt Lake City
With the highest U.S. TV ratings of any Winter Olympics opening ceremony, the Salt Lake City opener is remembered for its defiant patriotism. An honor guard of American athletes and first responders carried a flag rescued from Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center had stood less than five months earlier.
As the members of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team lifted the Olympic flame to the cauldron, the home crowd at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium chanted U-S-A, U-S-A, in a moment that seemed about much more than sport.
They paraded into the stadium like exotic birds, their sports having just gained a place in the Winter Olympics. Snowboarders. Curlers. Women hockey players (the U.S. team went on to win the event’s first gold). Stars of the National Hockey League were permitted to compete for the first time.
In the highlight of the show, ballet dancers moved in unison in the Nagano Olympic Stadium as Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa began directing the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Surprising TV audiences around the world, the mostly Japanese crowd of 30,000 joined in as the chorus began the famous “Ode to Joy” in German.
How had they all memorized the words? Soon extra screens showed live feeds of choruses in New York, Beijing, Berlin, Sydney, and Cape Point, South Africa, all in perfect sync with the thousands singing in Nagano, in what was one of the most stirring and inventive performances in Olympics history.
The Norwegian town held the opening ceremony at a ski-jumping facility, filling the snowy venue with fiddlers, folk dancers and choreographed spirits from Norse mythology. The enduring moment, though, was the Olympic torch sailing through the air in the hand of a ski jumper on its way to the cauldron.
The TV ratings were boosted by the unfolding scandal among the U.S. women figure skaters. Nancy Kerrigan, who went on to win silver despite a baton blow to the knee delivered by a man contracted by the ex-husband of her rival, Tonya Harding, was able to march in the opening ceremony. Harding later said she was asked not to walk with her teammates or attend the ceremony. The fairytale-like setting and the American scandal made for such a captivating day that thieves took advantage, and the afternoon of the opening ceremony they stole Edvard Münch’s famed painting “The Scream” from the National Gallery in Oslo.
In the final, tense years of the Cold War (the U.S. had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and in return the Soviets would lead a boycott of the games in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984), the U.S. delegation went full cowboy in outfits designed by Levi Strauss: sheepskin jackets, flannel shirts, water-repellent jeans and tan suede gloves and leather boots. The cowboy hat had been a touch four years prior by standard-bearer Scott Hamilton, who went on to win gold in men’s figure skating in Sarajevo. The 1984 Winter Olympics will always be remembered as a bright moment before the breakup of Yugoslavia and the siege of Sarajevo devastated the city.
At the first Winter Olympics, the opening ceremony was little more than a registration of papers, as the winter events were just an appendage of the Summer Games.