Opening ceremonies of sporting events are generally avoidable irritants. More often than not they make fans inside the stadium and in front of TV fidgety.
Opening ceremonies of sporting events are generally avoidable irritants. More often than not they make fans inside the stadium and in front of TV fidgety. But the event at the Olympics is something else. It’s a festival of colour, emotion, fun and creativity that bewitches the world. A well-planned opening ceremony serves as a perfect appetiser to the absorbing sporting action that is to follow for 17 days.
Conducting the inaugural Olympics was a task in itself, so there was no elaborate opening ceremony at Athens in 1896. Long-winded speeches and hymns preceded competitions. The next two editions, no shining examples for organisational excellence, featured no opening ceremony at all.
It was at London in 1908 the foundations for the spectacle, which we take for granted today, were laid. For the first time, the parade of athletes behind their nations’ flags took place in the opening ceremony. The affair was unremarkable as only 22 National Olympic Committees took part.
A hundred years later, the same ceremony at Beijing, featuring 204 nations, had been transformed beyond recognition. After years of adaptations, the International Olympic Committee has been able to firm up a strict protocol for the opening ceremony. For example, the practice of releasing pigeons to spread the message of peace after lighting the cauldron came into vogue only from 1992. Reason: quite a few birds burned to death at the 1988 Seoul Games as they had been released before the cauldron was lit. Some unsuspecting pigeons were perched on the rim of the cauldron when it was lit.
The most important events of the opening ceremony programme, which is now set in stone, are the artistic show, parade of nations, lighting of the cauldron and fireworks. Speeches are short and sweet. Greece, home of the ancient Olympics, always leads the procession of athletes and the host, as every host should do, takes the backseat to bring up the rear.
The sight of the irrepressible Muhmmad Ali lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with his trembling hands was poignant as it confirmed America’s reconciliation with its most famous citizen. Four years later, an emotional Cathy Foreman had the honour.