Tonight is the night: the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is finally happening.
One of the great spectacles in international culture kicks off tonight (never mind the fact that soccer and archery events have already begun). The opening ceremony is the host nation’s chance to open its arms to the world and put its culture on full display.
Check out Paste’s coverage of what to expect at the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony.
The artistic displays of the opening ceremony are central to the Olympic movement. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, envisioned the Olympics as displays of athletics and art. The opening ceremony is a central part of the art.
Here is a look at how the opening ceremony has changed throughout the ages.
The Olympic Games officially returned on April 6, 1896. The first edition of the modern Olympics had its opening ceremony in the totally restored Panathenaic Stadium, a venue that was first constructed in 330 BC. A crowd of 60,000 people ushered in the games.
One of the most symbolic pieces of opening ceremonies as we know them is the Parade of Nations. The 1908 games in London (which lasted more than six months!) were the first games to feature this parade. Things didn’t super smoothly in this first attempt; Finnish athletes marched without a flag rather than marching under the Russian flag, the Swedish athletes didn’t march at all because no Swedish flag was hung in the stadium and American flag bearer Ralph Rose refused to dip the Stars and Stripes to King Edward VII.
The Antwerp games introduced three crucial elements that are now standard in opening ceremonies. It was the first ceremony to feature the reading of the Olympic Oath, the first to fly the Olympic Flag and the first to release doves as a symbol of peace. The doves were a crucial symbol; Antwerp was the first Olympics following World War I.
The Olympic flame, one of the game’s most iconic symbols, was reintroduced to the modern games in Amsterdam.
The torch relay, the modern twist on the Olympic Flame, was first introduced in Berlin. In an Olympics bathed in Nazi symbolism and propaganda, the torch relay was created as a way to link Germany to Greece. Adolph Hitler believed the ancient Greeks to be forerunners of his Aryan race, and the torch relay was a way to show this connection. This first relay took 12 days to complete, running from Olympia, Greece, to Berlin.
Here’s something people tend to forget about the 1956 Olympics: because Australian law banned horses from entering the country, all of the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden. This meant two opening ceremonies! The United States had two flag bearers (Norman Armitage in Melbourne and Warren Wooford in Stockholm). There were two separate torch relays, and the Stockholm relay consisted entirely of riders on horseback. And of course, there were two separate Olympic flames.
Mexico City 1968
Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo became the first ever woman to light the Olympic flame.
As part of the torch relay, the flame was transmitted as a radio signal from Athens to Ottawa. In Ottawa, the radio signal triggered a laser beam which then relit the physical flame so the relay to Montreal could be completed.
In keeping with the tradition of the Games that came before it, the Olympic Flame was lit before the doves were released during Seoul’s opening ceremony. This led to tragedy when the some of the doves decided to rest on the cauldron, where they burned and died. Live doves have not been a part of opening ceremony since the Seoul accident; instead they are always represented symbolically.
In a surprise, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali completed the torch relay and lit the Olympic flame. By this point in his life, Ali had become seriously affected by Parkinson’s disease. Ali confidently lighting the flame despite the affliction in front of 90,000 people is considered one of the Olympics’ greatest moments.
Atlanta was also unique because the ceremony focused on regional (Southern) culture rather all of American culture. As part of the celebration of the modern games’ 100th anniversary, Pierre de Coubertin’s voice played in the stadium during the ceremony.
The Beijing games featured the most expensive opening ceremony ever; it is estimated that China spent about $100 million on it. The entire ceremony was praised, but perhaps the most iconic moments came at the beginning with the army of drummers playing their LED instruments to open the performance.