But before the starting pistols sound for the Olympics proper, we have to endure—actually, no haters here, we are privileged to be able to experience—the three-hour exercise in awe, jaw-dropping spectacle and cultural traditions that have become the Olympics opening ceremonies.
And though these games are not without scandal, we've got high hopes for Sochi's extravaganza primed to stun the world when they air Friday night on NBC (cancel whatever plans you had...go ahead, we'll wait), let's first take a look back at the five most winning moments past opening ceremonies have given us:
1. Beijing 2008: Let's be honest here. Any list purporting to include a top five anything to do with Olympics opening ceremonies is really just going to be a four-way race for second. Because nothing else has yet to beat the spectacle, scope, grandeur and sheer audacity of both vision and precision of the 2008 Beijing games opener.
OK, so there was that one slight global PR disaster when it turned out the Chinese organizers pulled a switcheroo, replacing their star child singer with a lipsyncing, slightly more camera-friendly girl, but that superficial fiasco aside, the 34 million pairs of eyes that tuned in to the exquisite and regimented en masse choreography were, simply put, stunned into astonishment. As it happens, it was a rather fitting and stage-setting curtain-raiser: that particular run of games stands as the most-watched event in U.S. TV history, averaging 27.7 million viewers over 17 nights of programming. We're guessing because after a sight like that, no one dared turned away for fear of missing a moment.
2. Los Angeles 1984: You know how when you were little and you dreamed of the future, that vision included the presumptive fact that every man, woman and child would come equipped with a standard-issue jetpack? Well, the future of our collective dreams arrived in the summer of 1984, at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles games. What happened? Simply this: A man. Flew into. Olympic Stadium. On a jet pack. Why are we even still discussing this? No further argument required.
3. Atlanta 1996: Sure, it didn't have some two thousand (2,008, to be precise) Fou drummers pounding rhythmically and rousingly as one. But it did offer up what it is, exactly, that America does best: sentimentality.
Though the rest of the games may have been alternately frighteningly marred (Richard Jewell's heroics, vilification and ultimate exoneration) and unimaginably inspiring (Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven, anyone?), the opening ceremony kept America rapt right to the end with a surprise appearance by Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest and most heralded sportsmen, well, ever. Despite suffering from Parkinson's disease, the pugilist floated, butterfly-like, right into Olympic Stadium, and when the torch-bearer lit the Olympic flame in front of an adoring nation, well...something stung like a bee, all right. It was the, um, dust. In our eyes. Pass the tissues?
4. Barcelona 1992: Before there was Katniss, before there was Legolas, before there was Hawkeye, there was one bow-and-arrow wielder who rose head and shoulders above the rest, almost single-handedly making Barcelona's 1992 opening ceremony one for the record books. His name? Antonio Rebollo.
The paralympian kicked off the summer games in astonishing, inspiring style (really, everything the games should be), when he drew back and sent his flaming arrow over the assembled crowd to land perfectly (well, to the naked eye, at least) into the torch's cauldron and set alight the Olympic flame. As it happens, the spirit of the games and man's triumphant nature were out in full force on that particular night in the early '90s, as the Barcelona games also marked the first time in more than two decades that an Olympiad was not boycotted by any of the participating nations. Now that's something to celebrate.
5. London 2012: If any city was capable of beating the awe-inspiring bar set by Beijing, surely it's this one. After all, they're no strangers to putting on global displays of pomp and circumstance (thank you, royal family). With Oscar winner Danny Boyle at the helm, a performance from a Sir Paul McCartney, a reading from J.K. Rowling, a helicopter drop-in from James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II, it's no surprise London's opening ceremony was the most watched in 50 years
Plus, it had one hell of a playlist, was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest and Shelley's Frankenstein and more or less has turned the stadium into a real-life depiction of the Shire (Bilbo not included. David Beckham, on the other hand...)
And in addition to the veritable menagerie that was on hand (70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, three cows, three sheepdogs, two goats
and a partridge in a pear tree added to the makeshift British countryside), the ceremony included all things U.K.: mosh pits, olde English quotes, bells-a-plenty, a chorus of 900 children, one of the biggest sets ever constructed for an opening ceremony and, in a particularly fitting touch, clouds suspended above the stadium on wire, rigged to produce rain during the night.
E! is broadcasting live from Sochi throughout the games.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)
(Originally published Thursday, July 26, 2012)