5 Memorable Moments from Past Opening Ceremonies

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As the Olympic Games get set to kick off in London 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. However, 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 a few of the best.

1. The Olympic Torch Becomes a Korean BBQ

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 hundred-foot 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 discontinued the dove release following this incident. You can see the cringe-inducing debacle take place below (jump to about the 2:45 mark).

2. Romance Smolders over the Olympic Cauldron

Unlucky birds aren't the only things that can get hot over the cauldron; the passions of two teenagers have heated up there as well. When Montreal hosted the 1976 Games, organizers wanted to find a symbolic way to represent both Quebec and the rest of Canada working together in harmony. What better way to celebrate multiculturalism than with the country's children? Stephane Prefontaine, a 16-year-old French-Candian track prodigy, and Toronto's Sandra Henderson, a 15-year-old runner, received the nod to light the cauldron. This ended up being more than a cute photo op, though. The two fell in love and ended up getting married years later.

The Montreal cauldron's adventures weren't all happy, though. Just days after the flame successfully acted as a matchmaker, a torrential rainstorm extinguished it. A quick-thinking bystander relit the torch with his cigarette lighter, which seemed like a reasonable way to avert disaster. By Olympic standards, though, this bit of pragmatism was tantamount to desecration. Organizers had to extinguish the cauldron before relighting it with a "real" sacred Olympic flame that they had been keeping in reserve for just such an occasion.

3. 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 Rebello used the flame to ignite an arrow, which he then fired over the crowd towards 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. See for yourself (jump to about the 4:35 mark):

4. Hitler Leaves His Mark on the Games

Picture 133.pngThe 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 stadium with the Olympic rings in tow and a goose-stepping delegation of Bulgarian athletes.

5. Protests Plague the Soviet Games

Picture 93.pngIn 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.

If these protests were meant to make an impression on Moscow's youth, though, they probably fell short of their goal. All children between ages 7 and 15 spent the day "on holiday" in the countryside to keep them away from the potential Western influences of the throngs of spectators flooding in for the Games. Sadly, the children 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 outer space.

This article originally appeared during the Beijing Games in 2008.

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July 26, 2012 - 10:44pm
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