The torch will be lit later today, ushering in the Olympic Summer Games in London. For the next 16 days, millions of sports fans and non-sports fans will support the athletes of more than 200 countries as they compete in over 300 events in 26 sports from archery to wrestling. Champions will be crowned and heroes anointed. Triumph will be celebrated while defeat will be agonized. Controversies as well as the possibility of unbelievable feats of athletic and human achievement will be debated on a daily basis. Through it all, the 10,000 athletes and their stories will reminds us of the triumph of the human spirit. And it all begins with the Opening Ceremonies.
Over the course of the last 29 Olympic Games, the Olympic Opening Ceremonies have evolved from a ceremonial parade of national Olympic teams into an extravaganza that showcases the history, national pride, and artistic ability of the host nation. In 2008, over one billion people worldwide tuned in to watch the four-hour spectacle that was the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing games. The show was directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), featured 15,000 volunteer performers who rehearsed for 13 months, and cost an estimated $100 million to produce. This year the task of highlighting the “Isles of Wonder” belongs to Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and his cast of 10,000, not including livestock.
Following Boyles’ Shakespeare- and Monty Python-infused portrayal of British history and culture is the ceremonial Parade of Nations, where the athletes get the opportunity to display their national pride. At some point, the 529 athletes representing the United States Olympic team will walk onto the track and carry on the tradition of expressing the pride of “We the People,” a spirit that has been demonstrated on several occasions during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
During the first Parade of Nations at the 1908 summer games, also in London, U.S. Olympian and flag bearer Ralph Ross refused to lower the American flag in acknowledgement of King Edward VII. According to Olympic lore, team captain and nine-time medalist Martin Sheridan explained Ross’ actions by saying “this flag dips for no earthly king.”
In the 1936 Berlin games, the U.S. Olympians again used to the Opening Ceremonies to make a statement. Adolph Hitler had sought to use the games as justification for the Nazi theory of Aryan superiority. Hitler had attempted to forbid the participation of Jewish and black athletes, but the American athletes, under the leadership of U.S. Olympic leader Avery Brundage, refused to acquiesce to Hitler’s rules on participants. During the Opening Ceremony’s Parade of Nations, the U.S. team refused to dip the flag or render a Nazi salute to Hitler, as was requested, choosing instead to acknowledge the head of state with a military-style eyes-right.
The Opening Ceremony has also been used to humanize. One of the highlights of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was controversial three-time world champion and 1960 Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali battling the tremors of advanced Parkinson’s Disease to light the Olympic torch at the end of the Opening Ceremony.
“We the People” even bear some responsibility for the production that the Opening Ceremony has become. The organizers of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles decided to add the first theatrical elements to the Opening Ceremonies, which featured 85 grand pianos playing “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Michael Simzak is the Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.