From hundreds of riders on horseback dramatically galloping into the stadium to the thunderous beats performed meticulously by 2,008 tightly ranked drummers, host cities pull out all the stops to set the right tone for the Olympic Games.
The opening ceremony provides host cities the opportunity to put their culture and history on the world stage and these ceremonies have only grown more exorbitant over the years. This is Quartz’s guide to the top five ceremonies in modern Olympic history.
It’s Rio’s turn very soon–but how will compete with some of these?
5. Los Angeles, 1984
The 1984 Games were historic in many ways. They were the first not to be sponsored by the government and the only Olympic Games to have ever turned a profit. This dramatic change in the way the Olympics were financed, with public and private finances merged, brought in an unprecedented amount of corporate sponsorships, which had some impact on the ceremony.
The (perhaps biased) Los Angeles Times described it as the “greatest opening ceremony in Olympics history” and with a guy flying in with a jet pack, it’s easy to see why. Highlights of the ceremony include 84 pianists playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and composer John Williams’s theme for the Olympiad, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”, which won him a Grammy and went on to become the signature musical theme for the Olympics.
4. Sydney, 2000
The ceremony began with a lone horseman galloping into the stadium, followed by another 120 horsemen flying the Olympic flags. The almost dream-like opening ceremony paid tribute to Australia’s natural beauty, provided indigenous Australians with their biggest-ever stage, and rocked the stadium with tap dancers moving to beats brought by immigrants from Africa, South America, and Asia.
The ceremony went down so well in Australia that one national journalist jokingly called for drug tests to be administered to “whoever conceived such an incredibly intricate and colorful arrangement.”
3. Moscow, 1980
Though only 81 nations took part in the 1980 Olympic Games—the largest boycott in the history of the Olympic movement—the opening ceremony in the Soviet capital was a huge spectacle.
Over 16,000 athletes, as well as amateur and professional performers, participated in the performance. The opening included a mosaic sequence on the stadium’s eastern stands, created by thousands of participants holding sets of a painted panel, and an epic human pyramid.
2. London, 2012
The London opening ceremony was watched by an estimated worldwide television audience of 900 million. It was, as one American journalist put it, “the world’s biggest inside joke.” With a surprise-acting debut from a sky-diving queen—accompanied by her corgis and James Bond—a tribute to the state-run National Health Service, and a swarm of Mary Poppins, the opening ceremony was a tongue-in-cheek take of what it means to be British—and the people loved every moment of it.
One politician labeled it “leftie multicultural crap” and demanded more Rollings Stones and Shakespeare—he was swatted down by his own prime minister.
1. Beijing, 2008
What else was it going to be?
The Beijing opening ceremony was—without a doubt—the greatest spectacle in Olympic history. At 8 o’clock sharp, the ceremony began with a spectacular performance by 2,008 drummers—all perfectly in-sync. It also included a minor scandal as a cute girl singing was revealed to be lip-syncing, after the real singer was revealed to be unattractive enough to broadcast to the world.
The ceremony highlighted China’s greatest inventions and sent a clear message to the rest of the world: we’re powerful, we’re rich, and we’re daring you to beat what many described as “the greatest show on earth.” No-one has yet to match it.