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Olympic Spectacle: A Companion to the YouTube page
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Summer Olympics (Munich, Germany): The hidden legacy of these ill-starred Olympics is the use of a cultural program in the opening ceremony, including one unusual touch: a radio orchestra/oom-pah band, headed by Kurt Edelhagen, perform some (often rather tackily rendered) songs in the tradition of various major countries like China, India, and Spain, among others. Besides this ersatz soundtrack, there are unprecedented set pieces like a collection of alphorns to set the ceremony off, a mariachi band (appropriately a German-influenced tradition) and jarabe dancers to represent previous host Mexico City, and some youth dubbed by contemporary media the “flower children” singing Orff arrangements from the Carmina burana. What will become a staple from there on out at such ceremonies is the dance sequences, including not just the Mexican contingent but also a demonstration of alpine whipcracking, a distinctive tradition stemming from the wrangling of unruly sheep and horses in the mountains, and a round of schuhplattler, the ubiquitous Bavarian dance where men slap their shoes as they lift their feet in liederhosen. By the time the modernist cauldron is lit, the opening ceremony as we know it today begins to take shape.
Commonwealth Games (Christchurch, New Zealand): A Maori welcoming song kicks off the proceedings (Maori culture is often used to give a unique flavor to ceremonies set here), and then the band leads into Brittania’s answer to the group-of-kids trope pioneered in Munich one and a half years before. Typical halftime show stunts, like the formation of the logo by the children in colored raincoats, follow. The closing ceremony is covered in less detail by this documentary from New Zealand’s archives, though it does have a typical speech from the still young Queen Elizabeth II, as will each Commonwealth Games.
Winter Olympics (Innsbruck, Austria): Pressed to come up with a ceremony more elaborate than the protocol held there in 1964, Innsbruck gives us…well, not a whole lot. We get some marches to kick things off, then after the parade of nations a circle dance by some girls to the midtempo Zwiefacher rhythm. The Winter Olympics will lag well behind the Summer Games in staging until Calgary in 1988.
Summer Olympics (Montreal, Canada): Largely Francophone Montreal illustrates the Québecois portion of Canada’s heritage, and indeed this distinctively European flavor is just as much a part of Montreal’s opening ceremonies as is the local native Americans’ participation (due to be a common theme in future ceremonies on both sides of the Canadian-American border). After all, the Winter Olympics were usually quite regional in character until the 21st century or so. The post-parade program features some rhythmic gymnasts performing rather generic ballet stuff to the Montreal Symphony and Choir’s interpretation, arranged by Vic Vogel, of a concerto by a somewhat obscure Quebec composer named André Mathieu. Dancers in white dresses continue to develop the music in the Olympic rings display, but things get more local with an old social dance in traditional peasant dress, to the tune of the English drinking song “Vive la Compagnie” (a great illustration of what was in the 1970s becoming an increasingly fractious bilingualism in Quebec). A Cajun reel, complete with ribbon-pulling and accordions, provides a fun little interlude in the middle of the French portion. In the closing ceremony, dancers in the Olympic ring colors move in time to a thundering Algonquin tune as the local First Nations tribes’ representatives led a procession into the stadium. A tepee ballet continues the theme in the most elaborate closing yet, once again with Vogel’s arrangements of Mathieu’s music.
FIFA World Cup (Argentina): Considering how soccer-mad the countries of Latin America became during the Cold War years of largely CIA-backed dictatorships, it’s amazing that only one of them hosted the World Cup. One of the most infamous of those regimes, Jorge Videla’s Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (National Reorganization Project), emerged in the colorful land of mate, gauchos, and the tango, none of which got much truck from the organizing committee save for a tacky mascot. In the midst of the Dirty War, a ruthless hunting down of peaceful activists, Peronists, and guerrillas alike, the World Cup evoked criticism on par with the Berlin Olympics, and there is certainly a chillingly martial quality to the youth’s lockstep performances on the Buenos Aires grounds. Argentina’s flag symbol, the Sun, is formed in one of the displays, but the sunny joy and diversity of the nation of immigrants that is South America’s closest doppelganger to the United States is not really evident here. Then again, like most single-sport events, there is more focus on football (out of respect for global audiences I will call it that) than on the host nation’s culture.
Winter Olympics (Lake Placid, USA): Unusually, I could find only the network TV intro for the 1980 games, best-known for the “Miracle on Ice” at the height of renewed Cold War tensions, but there is a closing ceremony snippet available. ABC had the contract in the States, and either they cut the soundtrack out or this clip doesn’t include the Bosnian dancers previewing Sarajevo on stage. The only cultural content displayed at length is a performance of “Give It All You Got,” the then-current hit from Chuck Mangione, the father of smooth jazz. As we will see, the Soviets beat us Yanks that year as far as putting on a quality show.
Summer Olympics (Moscow, Russia): By the time the ailing Brezhnev opened the 1980 Summer Games, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had reignited Cold War tensions and triggered a massive Western boycott, so many American broadcasters had little exposure, at least at first, to the first Olympic “mega-ceremony,” which we bring you courtesy of Australia’s Seven Network. Typical mass gymnastics it is, but there are quirky touches of jazz and interesting regional bits from the constituent republics to start us off. Belarus contributes a somewhat Polish dance set (Poland-Lithuania ruled it for years), Kazakhstan does its own frenetic Turkic dance, Turkmenistan (bordering Afghanistan) gives some lively Arabesque flavor, Tajikistan brings its Iranian sound, Kyrgyzstan has a quasi-Chinese tinge, and all in all it’s actually a great showpiece of the Soviet Union’s cultural breadth that contrasts starkly with the heavy Russification policies of the era. Russia’s own folk dance has a liveliness not seen in Sochi, and every republic joins in a huge breakdown on “Kalinka.” Following them is Poland’s ol chum Lithuania, a lot like Belarus, plus very German-influenced Latvia and the Finn’s appropriately Scandinavian-sounding cousins from Estonia; the Baltic trio is followed up by the Caucasian trio, including Caspian Sea oil hot spot Azerbaijan, and apparently cut-out bits from Armenia and Georgia. Here we see the old folk-dance trope spun into something more, a grand tour of the USSR if you will. Mischa the bear, the cuddly mascot, gets some imitators parading around for a while, after which a somewhat creepy sequence plays out with child dancers performing with hobby horses and dolls as a giant eggman stares from the background (don’t ask, it’s Russia). Gymnasts take over after the dancers, appropriate given the host country’s dominance in that sport at the time, gradually putting together elaborate scenes with trampolines and multi-story platforms. Later, they form flower shapes and dance to classical music, a bit of a Shostakovich feel at times though I can’t pinpoint it in narration. The closing ceremony includes similar gymnastics and flag-holding stunts to the intro, but there's also a lively dance sequence with a giant matryushka doll, and of course the sentimental ending (referenced at Sochi’s close), with a giant Mischa balloon floating through the stadium before being released to depart with a tear shown on the jumbotron.
FIFA World Cup (Spain): Teenage girls pass out tons of flowers in this World Cup opening, and then some large king figures (elements in the colorful processions that occur on major saints’ days all around Catalonia to this day) turn around the field to the sound of Isaac Albeniz’s Suite española. Dancers in Catalan costumes (Castile hasn’t had a lot of luck getting major sports events) perform a lively sardana at the end of the clip, a local favorite accompanied by handkerchief-waving and woodwinds that is one of the many circle dances that are universal throughout the Indo-European, Semitic, and Turkic cultural worlds.
Commonwealth Games (Brisbane, Australia): Ric Birch, the mentor of Sydney maestro David Atkins, crafts ceremonies in Queensland’s top surf town that are full of the joy and homespun hospitality the land of G’day is so known for. A kookaburra, one of the many local creatures, contributes the call to the games, introducing a bunch of well-rehearsed school kids doing some large-scale diagrams of the games logo and the flag as in Christchurch. Some ethnic dancers to demonstrate the country’s modern tolerance joined in a rendition of one of the unofficial anthem “I Still Call Australia Home,” a giant kangaroo named after Waltzing Matilda struts in and winks through animatronics to “The Road to Gundagai” before letting loose some young “joeys” from her pouch to do trampoline jumps. Rolf Harris winds things up with a rendition of his old hit “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Mate” with new lyrics added as well as a depressingly slow version of “Waltzing Matilda.” The closing ceremony, not as comprehensive, does show one of the first examples (Lake Placid of course did this too) of the international mingling characteristic of the second round of the parade. Again, remember, opening ceremony = formal show, closing ceremony = party: this is the modern ceremony formula.
Pan-American Games (Caracas, Venezuela): When Venezuela, then an oil-rich but corrupt democracy, hosted the quadrennial Pan-American Games (open to the whole Western Hemisphere), they tapped a gentleman named Joaquín Rivera, best known as producer of the annual Miss Venezuela pageants, to do the honors for the opening and closing ceremonies. As one might expect from that country’s equivalent of Donald Trump at the time, there’s a lot more glitz than heritage on display, but Venezuela’s lively Caribbean music is on ample display. Alfredo Sadel, a renowned tenor, belts out the national anthem, one of those fun quasi-operatic tunes that many Latin American countries use as their official songs. One nice touch was a set of musical cues keyed to the host countries on the volunteers’ giant representations of each games logo in prior years. All the bases are covered in the typical ceremony of the period, including majorettes in a mix of halftime and carnival, a spirited joropo danced in the colorful costumes of the llaneros of Venezuela’s plains (arguably the national archetype), a cutesy sequence with costumed kids, and a gymnastics routine to a Spanish-language Village People medley that does not age well. Some of Rivera’s beauties stop by for production numbers. The closing ceremony, from the same team, is more of a concert as these usually are, and a schlocky pop star named Guillermo Dávila (one of many Barry Manilow types one can find on Latin pop radio) opens things up while a silly Osmonds-type group called the Grupo Unicornio close out. In between are some more authentic acts like Mirla Castellanos, a golden voice who can handle pop as well as more traditional material, and a great harp-and-guitar combo whose name I wish I could track down.
Winter Olympics (Sarajevo, Bosnia): Beginning games that are often compared nostalgically to the bloodbath to befall Bosnia after Yugoslavia’s breakup, this clip from the Sarajevo opening ceremony features typical “background” culture like all Winter Olympics prior. There are some traditional outfits from the region, we get to hear some exotic Balkan melodies, and people in jumpsuits gesticulate while the torch is lifted. The closing says goodbye to Vucko the wolf as skaters float around him. Not much to see here, just a rather beautiful town that would one day go through something awful.
Summer Olympics (Los Angeles, USA): Ric Birch, from Brisbane’s Commonwealth Games 1982 ceremonies, helped arrange festivities for the 1984 Summer Olympics. While there is a conscious effort to outdo Moscow as Russia repeated the boycott of 1980 in reverse, it is a celebration of America at its most boisterous rather than the more elegant material seen later, with a heavy dose of Tinseltown to fit the hosts. Bill Suitor enters famously on a jet-pack to bring a dose of futurist sci-fi to the proceedings, followed by the bombastic “Welcome” intro with clichéd balloons. USC-coordinated band performances of Copeland’s “Fanfare of the Common Man,” Sousa marches, and classics from George M. Cohan, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and armies of cheerleaders give a very pro-sports feel to the intro, though a Wild West scene, a gospel choir, and 84 pianos performing Rhapsody in Blue are a bit more high-falutin. Appropriately enough for the Hollywoody feel of the proceedings, John Williams introduces his fanfare that American networks have used in coverage ever since, particularly NBC. Williams’ score is full of all the brassy Romanticism we’ve come to expect from the film score maestro behind Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and many other films. Speaking of his frequent collaborator Stephen Spielberg, there were some timely touches of Close Encounters and E.T. in the closing ceremony’s biggest set piece, an alien visitor parking his UFO to wish all the Earthlings a good time. Perhaps the first handover ceremony is the brief showcase of the 1988 Seoul mascot. Reprises of the intro marches are done with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The concert must have been incredible, but all I could find was Lionel Richie’s famed extended version of his hit “All Night Long,” complete with the only combo of break-dancing and fireworks I have ever seen. Love it or hate it, it is 80’s as they come.
Summer Universiade (Kobe, Japan): This is an extended excerpt of either opening or closing ceremonies from an early world university games in Kobe, Japan’s beefiest city. No major Japanese cultural touchstones for the most part, but a decent reminder of Asian countries’ emphasis on music education in schools, something often glossed over by those touting their approach as a “STEM above all else” model for America to compete with. Not to soapbox, but music teaches patterns and systems, the nuts and bolts for any discipline from languages to trigonometry. That said, the opening J-pop number and the ersatz transition from Bolero to a nursery rhyme medley to Pomp and Circumstance don’t really do much for me. I came for a ceremony, not “Glee.”
FIFA World Cup (Mexico): Pretty elaborate for its time, the opening sequence intersperses prepared intros referencing the Mayan ball games (you don’t wanna lose those!), the great eagle of Tenochtitlan that gives its image to the flag, and Mexico City’s sumptuous cathedral with a live sequence harkening back to the imposing rituals of the Aztecs (the PG version of course). After the band plays the anthem, we get round 2 (round 1 being Munich) of the jarabe tapatío, the ubiquitous dance featuring men in black waistcoats and women in colorful dresses dancing around a sombrero that for many is quintessential to the country. The jarabe’s accompanying musical form, mariachi, draws heavily on the brass, accordions, and polkas brought by Germans who settled very heavily in both northern and southern Mexico in the nineteenth century, though it adds more recognizably Iberian modalities given the location. By the way, these games helped popularize and therefore lent their name to the “Mexican wave,” that ubiquitous group swaying often seen at both sports games and entertainment events like American Idol.
Goodwill Games (Moscow, Russia): Aggravated by the international tensions that fueled mutual Olympic boycotts in the 1980s, Ted Turner scheduled a rival event known as the Goodwill Games with a lot of pacifist rhetoric in the ceremonies. Here, as Moscow gets another bite at the apple, we see something of a techno ballet.
Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh, Scotland): For the height of Thatcherite patriotism, this sure was a relatively non-national ceremony. The element that sticks out is the large numbers of children in uniform dancing to and singing pop tunes from Gerard Kenny, later joining in a chorus of “The Royal Mile,” an unofficial Scottish anthem used to backdrop some floats showcasing the different regions of the Commonwealth. The Scots do get their own local color, though, with a charming be-kilted fiddle band playing the reels that so influenced American folk and country music through their settlement of the American south. Yehudi Menuhin, according to one commenter, is in the violin section, and the country dance section will pique the interest of the many Jane Austen fans out there (you know who you are).
Asian Games (Seoul, Korea): Korea’s first representation here includes the thunderous large drums played sideways (beopgo is apparently one local name) Korean music shares in common with its Japanese cousin (c.f. the taiko). Some kids generically mime to pre-recorded music, but later after the ceremonies we see some gorgeous court dances (called aak), a tae kwon do demonstration. An impressive festival ritual called juldarigi featuring a huge knotted rope in a kind of lateral tug of war is showcased. Don’t ask me, however, what the dance routine to Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy” has to do with, however, since your guess is as good as mine.
Summer Universiade (Zagreb, Croatia): Just a clipshow here, showing another crack at the silly kiddy sequences tried in Moscow 1980 near the end.
Pan-American Games (Indianapolis, USA): Appropriately for a Pan-American ceremony, Argentine-American Lalo Schifrin of “Mission Impossible” fame crafted the overture for a show officially farmed out to Disney. Specifically, Disney’s parade team, led by Don Mischer and his right-hand man Kenny Ortega (creator of “High School Musical,” which of course transformed Disney into a musical superpower) puts together an Aztec ceremonial flame for the torch, a sappy pop song sung by someone I can’t pick out, and a theme park parade with monkeys, Mexican festival skeletons, butterfly wings, et. al. The décor looks a little too much like the Magic Kingdom for my taste, and I do wonder whether this show, hosted in America after another host dropped out, played a role in the games not returning here since by seeming a bit too commercialized.
Mediterranean Games (Latakia, Syria): No major ceremony clips to speak of from this opening in the now war-torn country of Syria, but there is a performance of the theme song “Truly Lovely Welcome to Syria” from Naseem Hamdi, a famed pop singer from the early Assad years (under Bashar’s dad Hafiz). Hamdi, surrounded by dancers of various ages, is a pleasant enough singer and the song has its own Levantine lilt, though the lackluster final chorus in English displays some of the pitfalls of trying to graft an English verse onto a song written in another language.
Winter Olympics (Calgary, Canada): Calgary starts the first large-scale Winter Olympics ceremony by celebrating its frontier heritage (through the Calgary Stampede and representatives of the Cree and Assiniboine tribes) and its modern diversity (through a dance medley by people of various immigrant backgrounds). Canadian quirkiness is present in spades as giant dinosaurs represent Alberta’s burgeoning oil wealth. Mounties parade around, two-steppers two-step, and Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson (of Ian and Sylvia fame) perform in an all-too-short sequence. The kid sequence simulates various sports through dance, with the help of adult-contemporary maven David Foster’s music, and the cauldron simulating (together with the scaffolding all around) the hearth in a Plains tepee is one of the first to actually raise after being lit. The French make their appearance with Cajun dancing as they always do when Canada hosts, and the Anglos square-dance in some of the most ridiculous-colored suits I’ve ever seen. It’s vintage Western fun, and after some Ice Capades misery built to showcase previous games, we get another heapin’ helpin’ of hoedown, courtesy of k.d. lang performing classic square dance music.
UEFA Euro Cup (Germany): The Augustinian children’s choir of Düsseldorf sings, oddly enough, Irish music. That’s all I found of Europe’s continental soccer championship that year.
Summer Olympics (Seoul, Korea): Often overshadowed in the Western imagination by its more influential neighbors China and Japan, Korea possesses its own wealth of traditions fusing imported Buddhist and Confucian ideas and an autochthonous layer of native heritage with striking parallels to Native American lifeways, unsurprising since the Bering Strait was crossed not very far to the north. In music, for instance, my area of expertise, Asian temple bells are juxtaposed with a monophonic sound, heavy on percussion, wind, and drone effects, seen in many Native American musical forms. The dragon drum and banner processions create a “heartbeat” effect in the words of the video captioner here (no argument on my part), ushering in a grand welcome from what was once the “hermit kingdom” and a brutal dictatorship that the Seoul Games helped push toward democracy. A specatacular parachute sequence follows, plus the largest tae kwon do demonstration ever given (it starts kind of slow, but becomes epic when they start breaking huge amounts of stuff; I would not want to walk on that field with all those splinters). Juldagiri, seen in the 1986 Asian Games as well, really gets its change to shine here as the two knotted ropes clash in the middle of the field, all part of a noise-making ceremony meant to cleanse evil spirits from the Games. The theme “Hand in Hand,” performed by one-off group Koreana, was written by disco king and Donna Summer mentor Giorgio Moroder with Tom Whitlock, his collaborator on the Top Gun soundtrack. Closing ceremony excerpts included here are a typical gymnastics routine, a court fan dance, the magpie dancers forming the Ojak Bridge, and a pansori performance of vocal recitative telling the tragic story of Shim Cheong, a sort of Little Mermaid in reverse who sacrifices herself to the sea gods. Many of the dancers wear the distinctive hanbok, a sashed dress that serves as Korea’s national costume.
Summer Universiade (Duisburg, Germany): Though there are no cultural program spots from the ceremonies here, German ska legends the Nicks do get a gig, though it’s not clear how they’re involved.
Commonwealth Games (Auckland, New Zealand): On the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi that established British government over its original Maori settlers, New Zealand threw its second Commonwealth Games in its largest city, Auckland. The great Maori legend of divinely guided migration is told, in which ancient Polynesians travel in their waka (seagoing canoes) to Aotearoa (the native name for the north island which translates to “Land of the Long White Cloud”). The voyages of Cook bring the European element, at first largely through whalers and missionaries, gradually fading into an even more diverse modern population. Howard Morrison, one of the great pop crooners of New Zealand, sings a traditional song in Maori called Tukua A’hau. The closing ceremony, including a performance by Northwestern Native Americans in honor of Victoria, British Columbia as host the next time around (complete with a massive totem pole raising), includes what we will often see in New Zealand ceremonies, the haka. Used now as a psych-up by the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team, the haka performed by adults in the opening and children in the closing is a boisterous welcoming dance, the kind that says “we can be great allies, so let’s try to hash something out, because you certainly don’t want to be on our bad side.”
FIFA World Cup (Italy): Conceived by veteran Italian set designer Piero Zuffi, this World Cup ceremony had all the decadent brilliance one would expect. The theme song “To Be Number One,” penned by Giorgio Moroder (again) and sung by two singer-songwriters (Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennato) in Italian before being repeated in English, was pretty cheesy, and Moroder gets in his own plug with a reprise of “Hand in Hand” for the Asian segment of the main gimmick where models in color-coded Italian outfits represent each continent. La Scala maestro Riccardo Muti conducts his orchestra in some Verdi (I think), not exactly the greatest fit for the football demographic but there’s Italian variety for you. For better or for worse, global pop culture often is at its most conspicuous in World Cup opening ceremonies.
Goodwill Games (Seattle, USA): More sentimental peace imagery from Ted Turner’s rival games, this time in America. A little girl from Hiroshima’s dream of cranes spreading peace is illustrated by girls passing paper ones out to the sound of Kenny G’s biggest hit, “Songbird.” Pleasant, but not very memorable.
Asian Games (Beijing, China): Beijing 1.0 owes quite a bit to its predecessor and the preceding Summer Olympics in Seoul, right down to the parachute flag ceremony, the martial arts demonstration (though this time it’s the elegant, balanced motions of taiqiquan and wushu), and the Wide World of Drums to which we are treated (done much better in 2008 IMO). Meanwhile, the kiddy pageant harkens back to Moscow, climaxing with an appearance by the tracksuited granddaddy of that panda Alison Gold frolicked with in “Chinese Food” last year (boy that meme is gonna date fast). “Lotus Swaying on Clear Water,” a gorgeous fairytale-like scene of floral imagery with the subtlety and nature focus of much classical Chinese poetry, is probably the most original portion. The closing ceremony features performances by singers of the sentimental, melodic pop very popular throughout the continent, a feature we’ll see a lot of in future shows, and it also conveys the effort to include all regions of the continent that is an Asian Games trademark.
Mediterranean Games (Athens, Greece): A little Greek dancing figures at the end here, but the highlight is a display of one of the unique traditions of the Mediterranean Games, a water ceremony that serves as a kind of mirror image to the Olympic flame in keeping with the common theme of the sea.
Pan-American Games (Havana, Cuba): The Cuban capital’s opening ceremony is only briefly excerpted here, but there is something reminiscent of the Caracas Games’ projector shows about previous host countries.
Pacific Games (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea): Well-known for tribes who lived in relative isolation until very recently, Papua New Guinea showcases some colorful plumage and celebratory dancing from peoples of the Northern Province in a closing ceremony for the South Pacific Games (now called the Pacific Games), a competition spanning the many island states between Australasia and Southeast Asia. The child performance, like the cultural part a product of a gentleman named Richard Curzon, is to a song entitled “The Pacific Spirit,” which has a bounce akin to the music of Kiwi rocker Neil Finn that gives it a bit more pep than the average event theme.
All-Africa Games (Cairo, Egypt): In the arguable capital of the Arab world, our first full-scale performance from Africa’s continental competition takes the stage. Most of what I’ve found from these events is music, and that’s actually not surprising since it serves such a central role in African daily life. The 1991 games, hosted during the salad days of Mubarak that seem an eon ago, has a theme song, “We Met with Love,” delivered in lucid English, French, and Arabic by Amr Diab, whose fusion of Western and Arabic tonalities would go on to transform Middle Eastern Pop as we know it.
Winter Olympics (Albertville, France): Albertville, put together by Phillippe Decouflé who was fresh off engineering the Bastille bicentennial in 1989, was perhaps the most avant-garde of Olympics opening ceremonies. It was the last truly “Alpine” Winter Games, and the most elaborate to meet that description, including odd protocol like a girl in a shepherd outfit singing a somber a cappella “Marseillaise” and including a torch shaped like an alphorn. Most of the production, which eschews traditional French symbolism like Joan of Arc or wine for regional character, focuses on aerial circus acts accompanied by sepulchral music. People emerge from giant alphorns on the ground, drums are suspended from wires, people dance in mime outfits to accordion music, and generally what you get is a hipster paradise that baffles and amazes in equal measure. Definitely, this was one of the more unique ceremonies I have ever seen. The closing is more down-to-earth, featuring more of the lilting accordion music we’ve come to associate with the culture of Europe’s highest mountains.
Summer Olympics (Barcelona, Spain): The Birch is back. Ric Birch’s last major Games productions not to give up center stage to his apprentice David Atkins are the Barcelona ceremonies, glittering with all the flair of an Old World nation proud of its culture but looking forward to continuing a nascent democracy. Given the presence of classical giants like Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, and Plácido Domingo, there is a real high-culture feel to this the opening, though Holy Week processions are also simulated to give a feel for the everyday Spaniard’s village life. The sevillana, often viewed as an offshoot of flamenco, is zestily interpreted by Cristina Hoyos, a renowned dancer who will feature in the closing as well. A delightfully anarchical Odyssean scene on a ship obliquely references the Columbian anniversary in perhaps the most ambitious segment seen yet in such a ceremony. A score by Ryuichi Sakamoto (well-known among electronica fans as the core of supergroup the Yellow Magic Orchestra) accents the proceedings during the seafaring section as well as another model showcase (Italy ’90 really caught on I guess). The daring Catalan human towers called Castells make an appearance before the opera heavyweights close on a mix of largely Italian and French opera. The closing ceremonies make up for the deficit of Spanish classical music in the opening with some stately horse ballet to a terrific rendition by local guitar guru Feliu Gasull of highlights from Joaquín Rodrigo’ s Aranjuez Concerto and Fantasy for a Gentleman, Hoyos’s return with scenes from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo (his answer to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), and soprano Victoria de los Angeles teaming up with cellist Lluis Claret on the melancholy Catalan Christmas tune “El can't dels ocells.” More esoteric stuff is there, of course, including a marathon spoof by mime group El Tricicle, Atlanta’s over-the-top dance jam (with a little hip-hop thrown in and one of the ugliest mascots of all time), and a show by Catalan circus troupe La Fura del Baus that winds its way from celestial imagery to a pre-Christian fire festival characteristic of the region. The pop portion isn’t too shabby either, though there was a something a bit anti-climactic about the “Catalan rumba” that closed out the show. What really stands out is Carreras’s rendition of the theme song, “Amigos para siempre.” Barcelona doesn’t scrimp on anything here: for a duet partner, we get the big guns, the inimitable Sarah Brightman, a natural choice since the song is indeed co-written by her friend Andrew Lloyd Webber himself and movie lyricist Don Black, at the time working on their hit musical version of Sunset Boulevard. Brightman will be back a couple times, but only here is ol’ Webby involved, and you can definitely see the Puccini-esque take on Iberian/Latin music he splurged on in Evita.
Mediterranean Games (Languedoc-Roussillon, France): An ocean-colored ballet to Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” (Beyond the Sea), flamenco guitar with Vicente Amigo, haunting Albanian choral music, Arabic drum dancing, some opera and piano dudes (narration wouldn’t identify), fire-juggling, an Arab song (again not sure from where), and a chansonneuse who seems a lot like Véronique Sanson mark the smorgasbord of this closing ceremony.
Central American and Caribbean Games (Ponce, Puerto Rico): The kings of salsa, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, deliver like only they can in this opening for the 1993 iteration of the Caribbean basin’s only multilingual competition, the Central American and Caribbean Games. For the closing, original Fania All-Star Cheo Feliciano and Anacaona give more authentic salsa. Two ceremonies in opposite hemispheres, both for games devoted to the shores of a particular sea.
Winter Olympics (Lillehammer, Norway): Perhaps ironically for what may be the most “outdoor” ceremony in Olympics history in the depths of the Norwegian winter, Lillehammer ’94 is by far the emotionally “coziest” of the shows covered here, in Norwegian since that’s the most complete version I could find. All the warmth and hospitality of my maternal ancestors’ homeland is on display in spectacles that reflect Norway’s status as the Scandinavian country with the most persistent cultural traditions, all vibrant as one would expect in the last small resort town to host a Winter Olympics as larger cities began to take over from Nagano onward. Ingmar Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann and explorer Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame MC the proceedings, which start after the skydiving intro on a very progressive note with both an expression of sympathy for the devastation of 1984 host Sarajevo in the 1990s and a little sample of jolk, the shamanist chants of the Sami whose historic persecution and resurgence of identity politics earn some comparisons to the indigenous peoples of other regions. A lively fiddling display accompanies demonstrations of horse-wrangling and other tasks skis were originally used for, and a wedding procession precedes the Parade of Nations. The king arrives on a sleigh (correct me if it’s not him) that can’t help but convey Sandy Claus together with his red suit. The almost atonal music accompanying the torch relay (partly on skis!) contrasts with the Army’s precision tattoos that follow the lighting, but the most “random” part, as the kids say these days, would have to be the extended ballet of oddly costumed folk representing vettir, the leprechaun-like nature spirits of Norse folklore. The vettir wind up their segment with the big reveal of the dove of peace hatching from a giant world egg, a common motif of several world mythologies that we will see again later in Kazakhstan.
FIFA World Cup (USA): The U.S. reputation for the over-the-top but inelegant ceremonies is not entirely undeserved, as seen in the mixed bag here, in which for their only World Cup gig, the nation’s lack of commitment to what they call soccer is painfully illustrated by setting the opening ceremony at Soldier Field and the closing at the Rose Bowl Stadium. The opening in Chicago is hosted by Oprah and features the inimitable Diana Ross excelling at her day job with a medley of solo hits (including a rare performance of the Bee Gees-penned Supremes throwback “Chain Reaction”) and proving why she should stay there with an epic fail to score the easiest penalty kick imaginable. The most fun feature, a variation on those Pan-American Games things where instead of past hosts the participant nations all get a Parade of Dances, if you will. Post-protocol segments include Richard Marx singing a rather generic Star-Spangled Banner, true 1990s relic Jon Secada, and Daryl Hall doing a very gospel-tinged theme song called “Gloryland.” A huge balloon release and John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” preceded Kenny G’s version of the national anthem in the closing, but Pele shared a moment with the Golden Voice herself later on, as the late, great Whitney Houston stole the show. As the price of hosting this World Cup, by the way, the United States Soccer Federation had to commit to establishing a professional league (done in 1996) and boosting school programs in a big way, helping kick-start the game’s stateside popularity to a level the 1980s “soccer moms” would never have dreamed of (along with the rising Hispanic population).
Goodwill Games (St. Petersburg, Russia): Russia’s first post-Soviet games had a ceremony which does include a set-piece up on YouTube with a float representing Peter the Great’s armada and the opening of Russia to the world (to a point) in the eighteenth century. As one might expect, Sochi did it better.
Asian Games (Hiroshima, Japan): I couldn’t find the full show from Japan’s first modern ceremony, but there is a very noisy sequence with giant sashes carried to a techno mix on a bed of taiko and gong. More traditional placard scenes follow as dancers carry doves (symbols of Hiroshima’s call to peace from its devastation by atomic bomb 49 years earlier), and make the multi-colored games symbols repeatedly to electronic music that sounds like it comes from a Nintendo game (not an insult if you share my love of video game soundtracks). The white doves Poppo and Cuccu, who look quite a bit like Donald and Daisy Duck knock-offs, represent the high premium Japanese pop culture places on kawaii (often rendered as “cuteness”), illustrated helpfully on Wikipedia by a Pokémon train and Hello Kitty plane. It’s not so much a unique attachment to the diminutive and bright or pastel-colored as a use of such imagery in contexts beyond those in which it is used in the West.
Pan-American Games (Mar del Plata, Argentina): The biggest event in Argentina that I’ve been able to track down since the return of democracy, still has a raging case of the generics with its goofy dance around giant footballs and a lot of gymnastics to dance-pop, plus some musical portions cut short on the video that I couldn’t make out save for a snippet of the Hallelujah chorus.
Southeast Asian Games (Chiang Mai, Thailand): Our excerpt here, live from the first non-capital city (Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north) to host the biennial multi-sport event of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) features a concert by Thongchai McIntyre, a superstar of Thailand’s String genre of popular song, which owes a lot to the slick dance-pop of contemporaries like Madonna and George Michael. In the future, we will be seeing a lot of these low-key, offbeat shows that provide us with a sampling of countries struggling to get to an economic place where larger-scale competitions can be hosted. As usual, the competition is hosted in the Southern Hemisphere summer.
UEFA Euro Cup (England): In 1996, the home of football hosted the European continental cup, and our segments here include a rather sleepy theme from the opening, “We’re All in This Together,” from blue-eyed soul star Mick Hucknall (the Daryl Hall of England?). Perhaps a bit more rousing is the closing ceremony’s showcase of the cast of Claude-Michel Schoënberg French-cum-English musical version of Les Misérables singing the show’s second-best-known anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing.”
Summer Olympics (Atlanta, Georgia): Often, when a very powerful country gets an Olympics, criticism of its foreign or domestic policy overshadows discussion of the athletes and the ceremonies, the intended focus. It would happen in Beijing, it would happen in Sochi, and sure enough it happened in Atlanta, when the foreign press eviscerated the Atlanta Olympics ceremonies as some sort of epitome of the brash, ignorant “ugly American,” a figure admittedly conjured up from heavy Coke and McDonald’s sponsorship and often heavily associated in the global imagination with the American South where the Games took place due in part to a very real history of violent racial discrimination there. Lots of vitriol was reserved for the “tailgate” sequence with its pickup trucks, cloggers, and cheerleaders (few mentioned the use of drumline talents from historically black colleges in the area since that didn’t fit the narrative), but I have yet to see similar condemnation of other expressions of local sporting culture. No hardcore Patriot here, and it’s by no means the greatest ceremony ever, just stating the objective truth that massive geopolitical power is intimidating, and can provoke irrational fear as many comments on here illustrate. Consider the intercontinental “Call to the Nations,” kids in Despicable Me minion-style costumes (avant la lettre) dancing to John Williams’s “Summon the Heroes” (another NBC broadcast standard—he did after all write their nightly news theme), the Greco-Roman mythology ballet marking the modern Games’ centennial, and the tribute to native Atlantan Martin Luther King, Jr., near the end. These are just the kind of multi-culti, sophisticated, ever so politically correct presentations praised in other Games ceremonies, and an important way of leaving behind the more shameful elements of the region’s past. Moreover, the southern President and First Lady, Bill and Hillary Clinton, were as cosmopolitan and well-liked in many parts of the world as they come, certainly compared to their successors, to say nothing of progressive icon Jimmy Carter from the host state. The cradle of much of America’s most distinctive musical creations, the region is celebrated more explicitly in Gladys Knight’s spellbinding version of “Georgia on My Mind.” This part culminates in Don Mischer’s almost magic realist expression of the Southern saga through a costume parade in “Summertime” (designed by Peter Minshall of the Trinidad carnival), narrated by James Earl Jones off and on with excerpts from regional authors like Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner. Mark Watters and Lorraine Feather, two longtime soundtrack composers, put together a song based on the Olympic motto (Citius, Altius, Fortius) that gets delivered as a closing touch by native Georgian Jessye Norman, though the real theme song was Céline Dion’s “The Power of the Dream.” Canadian she and accompanist/co-writer David Foster may be, but Babyface’s co-write gives some American representation there. The closing ceremony, included in live video from someone who was there, is a feast of American popular music, including Florida’s own Latin pop crossover pioneer Gloria Estefan giving one of the more classic Games theme song performances with Diane Warren’s “Reach.” Trisha Yearwood brings out her own country-pop anthem, “The Flame,” and that side of Southern music comes out in Faith Hill’s lively “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (a Carter Family favorite) This is not to say there aren’t more theatrical pieces like the bike half-pipe that serves as a reminder of then-burgeoning extreme sports’ gradual climb to Olympic representation, to say nothing of a preview that doesn’t scratch the surface of Sydney’s epic sweep. There’s an accent on R&B, jazz, and blues, as is appropriate for the heavily African-American host city: Boyz II Men give a gorgeous national anthem, Stevie Wonder covers John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and everyone from blues legend B.B. King to jazz great Wynton Marsalis to old-school rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard to Cajun bluesman Buckwheat Zydeco doin’ their thang. Don’t forget to stay tuned for Estefan and Wonder’s return during the extended concert parade, to say nothing of the Pointer Sisters and Prince drummer-singer Sheila E’s impressive duet. The opening features our first narration, often criticized for its quantity but I dare say not its quality in NBC coverage, by the young Bob Costas.
Athletics World Champs (Athens, Greece): This may well be the most ambitious opening ceremony ever done for a single-sport (well, more like single-discipline) event. For this global track and field event, seen by many as a consolation prize for losing to Atlanta for the centennial Olympics bid (they did of course get 2004), Greece knew they had to go big, and go big they do. The whole ceremony, not just the music (including a theme song sung with Montserrat Caballé as if to bring the Olympic connection to Barcelona home) but the whole mise-en-scéne is the work of Vangelis, the film composer and New Age music pioneer whose score to Chariots of Fire is perhaps the one piece of music most closely identified with track and field (or athletics as most outside the U.S. call it). Vangelis, a brilliant keyboardist who fled his homeland during the rule of Greece’s brutal junta (1967-1974) to become a success in British exile, makes a triumphant return to Greece with an unforgettable perfectly pitched between celebrations of ancient Greco-Roman ideals and modern Greek culture. Sports and science, the ultimate in achievements of the human body and mind, come together in an intro mixing portrayals of athletes, mathematical formulae, starscapes, and other assorted paraphernalia. The show contains many references to ancient Greek ritual, perhaps providing a better facsimile of what the ancient Olympics were like than any actual modern opening ceremony for the games themselves does. Corinthian drummers accompany women solemnly proceeding forward in Greek theatre masks until they form a circle of priestesses dancing to the primordial violin known as the rebec, similarly dressed men join them in a spirited dance to the bouzouki, and the least unbearable child segment ever harkens back to Vangelis’s childhood in circle dances on the islands. It’s overall one of the most beautiful ceremonies I have ever seen, and Vangelis’s mix of his own compositions and traditional tunes really captures well the way in which Greece’s music shows the true pentatonic nature of much Eastern Hemisphere music, also visible in places like Ireland where the Baroque twelve-tone scale we take for granted never really penetrated the zeitgeist as it did in the European core. Tonal music, undeniable as its beauty is, is in fact a musical aberration, and even medieval Europe’s church modes reflected the very different sonic sensibility still preserved in Orthodox Greece. Be sure to check out the stunning location photography projected off and on throughout the ceremony, maybe the best tourist ad ever.
Winter Olympics (Nagano, Japan): Japan’s folklore is very much on display at the opening ceremony, though perhaps not with the panache we will surely see at Tokyo 2020 (which I hope will find a way to balance tradition with Japan’s considerable contribution to global pop culture). The torch based on a Buddhist bonfire and the great pole-raising festival called onbashira are reminders of the spiritual significance of Nagano as the site of the great Zenko-ji temple, a major Buddhist shrine. Some more secular aspects of the opening include a sumo match-set ceremony featuring a Hawaiian-born all-star that is unfortunately truncated (in this broadcast segment at least, unlike the vintage 1990s commercials that’ll trigger a nostalgia-gasm in many of us who can remember the era) as well as Seiji Ozawa’s gargantuan and successful undertaking to conduct choirs on five continents in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” included separately since CBS appears to have cut it for time. The closing ceremony is MC’ed by comedian Kinichi Hagimoto, a national superstar best-known for his dominance in the field of owarai, Japan’s unique answer to stand-up. A traditional Japanese rice harvest festival (such festivals are often the focus of Summer Games closing ceremonies since they typically take place in late summer) is shared with the world. Lifelike bunraku puppets perform the festival dance, Japan shows off its cousin to the Chinese lion dance, taiko drums get the workout of a lifetime, and the daring tradition of hand-held firecrackers (got to see it to believe it) helps close things out. In a more contemporary vein, Anri (a pop star whose 1983 theme for “Cat’s Eye” began J-pop’s long alliance with anime and video game soundtracks) sings children’s classic “Furusato,” a truly lovely event, while Bahian worldbeat group Ilê Aiyê brings a surprising international touch to the proceedings in the finale.
FIFA World Cup (France): The pre-show included a major outdoor event, included here for completeness’s sake, which brought continent-representing giant statues of footballers through the streets of Paris to symbolize the world’s coming together to enjoy its most popular sport. The opening is similarly artsy Albertville-style circus stuff in which plant people on stilts prance around a magic garden. Very pretty, and I suppose very French in its own way, but not quite what people picture when they picture l’Héxagone.
Commonwealth Games (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia): Everything I’ve been able to find from this Commonwealth Games, both in the opening and the closing, is music and dance, and that’s good enough for me. When you combine a large Chinese population, the usual heavy Indian influence on Southeast Asian culture, and a majority-Muslim country’s exposure to Middle Eastern grooves, and throw in a dose of the driving beat of Western pop, you get a combination like no other, music so unique that it could spring from no other place on Earth (OK, maybe Singapore or Indonesia, but not much else) and which apparently goes by the name irama Malaysia. Siti Nurhaliza, one of many jack-of-all-trades singers found in the non-Western world (we’re kind of slouches at that kind of eclecticism IMO) who can handle everything from the most vaunted traditional music to the most worldly globalized dance-pop, is one of the highlights, as is her compatriot Noraniza Idris. Considering the catchiness of this music even from my jaded Western POV (yes, your mileage may vary), it’s a bit of a disappointment that the one full upload of the closing ceremony leads to nothing but a gray screen and snow, and if anyone can tell me “the trick” to accessing sangharimau’s upload please let me know.
Asian Games (Bangkok, Thailand): The big intro isn’t the most promising, with a bunch of teens in T-shirts dancing to a pop song whose chorus starts vaguely like Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party.” I try to get into this, of course, being your tour guide here, and I assure you the best lies further on. I feel for King Bhumibol Aduljadej, whose reign has broken numerous records and who has had to sit there being all royal while soldiers and politicians squabble endlessly for more than half a century now, but I thank my lucky stars I don’t have to deal with the country’s strict “lesé-majesté” laws, because though both of us may love jazz, his composition “Oh I Say” does not earn the secondary title of “Jazz King” and I would want honest feedback if I were a composer, which said laws do not make easy. At least we get some real quality fusion from eclectic international keyboard ensemble Temple of Dawn Consort to liven things. In a bit of a nod to Thailand’s increasing freedom of speech at the time, the lead singer of Carabao, a once-proscribed group that pioneered the protest rock of phleng phuea chiwit (“songs for life”), gets to deliver a song to start the more “official” ceremony, even bringing his guitarist on for a solo. There is a bit of a more traditional ceremony part ahead with a short procession including a figure of Ramkhamkaeng the Great, the 13th-century monarch long revered as the father of the nation, followed by men in elaborate masks performing the royal khon dance-drama. Muay thai, of course, gets its own large-scale demonstration. Brace yourselves for some more trite kiddy dancing, this time celebrating Thailand’s distinctive sawasdee greeting (closely tied to India’s namaste). Both the king and the country get anthems played, and the ancient nation puts up a great first cauldron shaped like a traditional Thai pagoda temple, only to use it to light the real cauldron shaped like a lotus flower. A solemn ceremony to seek the blessing of Hindu gods for the games’ good fortune closes things out with some real Olympics-level fireworks, plus we get a snake dance and some quality laser shows. Things get a little tackier later on, as four colored bouncy balls represent regions of Asia and the king gets to flex his compositional muscles again (please bring in the pros, my liege!), though I’ll admit he’s better at movie score-type stuff than he is at jazz. Tata Young sings the official theme song, and while it’s as sappy as these songs usually are, her voice is phenomenal and the child of a Thai mother and American father more than proves how she earned her status as the nation’s chief pop star. For the closing, I found two segments, one with Jang Kayseethong doing a recitative chant lamenting the Asian Games flame’s dimming but celebrating the Games’ legacy. A charming farewell song, “The Light of Asia,” is performed by two kids, though I got a bit disappointed when it segued into “Auld Lang Syne.” You can tell I love originality, huh?
FIFA Women’s World Cup (USA): No major ceremony footage here, just a classic early performance from American Idol judge and all-around larger-than-life personality Jennifer Lopez, lighting up the Rose Bowl for the final of the second major football competition hosted by America. Jennifer’s mix of Puerto Rican heritage (here elided from close Cuba by a song actually co-written by Gloria Estefan of Miami/Atlanta fame) and love for smooth, all-American R&B is the perfect elixir to build a bridge between her famously soccer-phobic (yes, I used the “s” word, but in context it make sense) nation and the football-loving world. For what it’s worth, she may or may not have helped power the home team to its second victory, a watershed moment in the history of both association football in the States and women’s team sports in general.
Pan-American Games (Winnipeg, Canada): For Canada in 1999, this was a hot mess. The camera quality is terrible in the record we have here from Chilean TV, but that doesn’t obscure the “birthday party” ambience, as someone exposed to later ceremonies put it, of this opening ceremony. A lot of bagpipes were here for a Canadian theme, a Broadway-style starlet led kids in the ugliest mock athletic suits in a stupefyingly cheesy number. Jeremy Kushnier, a respectable talent in productions on the Great White Way, embarrasses himself in the most 1990s jump suit this side of Sue Sylvester in the second part of one of the most agonizingly long things I had to sit through to put this playlist together. A corny song paying tribute to the prairie metropolis hosting and its diverse citizenry, delivered by a male-female duo of which the woman’s French is some of the worst I’ve ever heard sung, completes what would almost seem a parody of the kind of show that gives these things, like the pre-1990s Super Bowl halftime shows, such a bad name. I’m almost tempted to say this is here mainly for comic value, especially since Canada has much better shows on tap on this very list.
Rugby World Cup (Wales): The Land of the Eisteddfod has never had a shortage of bards, and while there’s no Tom Jones or Duffy to whet our appetite here (to be fair, Duffy was probably ten back then lol), feast your ears on Dame Shirley Bassey and Bryn Terfel singing the official Rugby World Cup theme “World in Union.” Ironically, however, it’s English West End star Michael Ball who really brings the house down with traditional Welsh music, namely the great hymn “Bread of Heaven.” This may be one of the most gorgeous English-language musical performances you’ll find on this playlist.
UEFA Euro Cup (Belgium/Netherlands): As you may have noticed by now, northern and western European ceremonies have tended to eschew some of the cultural and historic allusions found when other parts of the world host sports events. My best guess is that, rather than being a sense of shame in one’s heritage that some largely conservative-leaning commentators claim from time to time, the areas that faced down fascism and managed to establish functioning democracies are wary of anything seeming too nationalist, however innocent. This factored into Manchester 2002 and London 2012’s very pop, multicultural air even in the traditionally more formal opening ceremonies. Therefore, don’t expect brass bands (which as we know them in the West are perhaps the Benelux’s most underrated but pervasive cultural export) or windmills and gnomes in this ceremony for a tournament co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands. What we get here is a singer whose name I can’t catch accompanying a giant animatronic footballer manipulated by Lilliputian-looking volunteers as he runs to kick a giant football. People in weird costumes gallivant around as in the World Cup 1998 ceremony in France, and Belgian house group E-type (house and techno are the Benelux’s biggest modern culture export) deliver their own theme song.
Summer Olympics (Sydney, Australia): This is it. This is where the opening and closing ceremonies both came of age, though especially the former. I wish the complete ceremony was still up, but I have to put up segments because it got taken down by the copyright police, so my work was cut out for me. Ric Birch’s opening, with art direction by David Atkins who has rightly been recognized with a Medal of Australia (Atkins may well be called the Shakespeare or Spielberg of this medium IMO), was unprecedented in the Olympics and arguably among opening ceremonies altogether. Between the Australian anthem and the Parade of Nations, Birch and Atkins weave a coherent, clear story from the source of life in the ocean to the rise of Australia as a built-up, modern land at the turn of the millennium, forever putting to shame the disjointed sets of vignettes that made up earlier opening ceremonies and crafting something that almost has the feel of a more peaceful national epic. There are more traditional musical interludes, of course, from Down Under’s many golden pipes: soprano Julie Anthony shares the national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” with boy band Human Nature; former Little River Band frontman John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John sing their cheesy inspirational song; contemporary dance-pop superstar Vanessa Amorosi sang hers (the best if I had to pick one); and Tina Arena sang Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” for the lighting. With the exception of the intro taste of Oz in 120 outback stock horses forming the Olympic rings to the sound of The Man from Snowy River score, the cultural program parts were all concentrated in a continuous 1-hour festival united, like everything in aboriginal mythology, by the overarching theme of the Dreaming or Dreamtime. Dreamtime is essentially another dimension where our concept of time has no meaning, where history, present, and future blend as one, and it is said by Australian Aborigines of many tribes that we go there whenever we die or enter any state of less-than-full consciousness, including the literal dream set up as the narrative device for the ceremony. That dream is held by the character played by Nikki Webster, the charming eighth-grader who later in the ceremony sings the theme “Under Southern Skies” and appears throughout as a respectful surrogate audience; later she kind of went Miley Cyrus as adulthood and racier forms of entertainment beckoned. Anyway, the massive suspended coral reef Webster swims through, the Aboriginal smoking ceremony to welcome the athletes, the celebration of the land’s unique wildlife, and later allegories telling the story of the rough-and-tumble outback settlement and later growth of urban multiculturalism and modernism as the nation became a land of immigrants like the U.S. all must be seen to be believed. This was a masterpiece, and the bar was raised. The closing ceremony brings back Webster with another syrupy number, but we also get Savage Garden bringing another dose of Australia’s teenybopper music to match Human Nature in the opening. While many facets of Aussie pop culture get their day in the sun, including icons as diverse as Strictly Come Dancing (the cast from the ancestor of America’s Dancing with the Stars perform to Aussie John Paul Young’s “Love Is in the Air), the Sydney surf lifeguards, and Bananas in Pajamas, the musical performances are the highest-quality yet. Nobody can deny that pop stars like Kylie Minogue, Vanessa Amorosi, and dance group Madison Avenue have real staying power, but the most notable difference from earlier years is that this is the first time the nation’s contributions to rock were proudly showcased. Australia’s own quirky, working-class bands, often using lush keyboards and a distinctive perspective to make for something distinctive, get a real work-out here. INXS and Men at Work (the latter performing—what else?—their classic “Down Under”) are in full force, but perhaps more pointed are Midnight Oil and aboriginal rock fusion band Yothu Yindi, who both subtly protest Midnight Oil fan and then-Prime Minister John Howard’s apathy toward aboriginal rights issues with their performances. Slim Dusty, king of Australia’s brand of country music, gets the last word with a sing-along of “Waltzing Matilda,” closing out the new benchmark for international sporting ceremonies. Well done, mates.
Winter Universiade (Zakopane, Poland): Not much of an excerpt, just a Polish folk song being performed by a choir with an accordion in the background, a decent teaser (anyone got the full set?) for what I picture having a lot of Chopin.
Athletics World Champs (Edmonton, Canada): Canada must have felt some pressure to one-up Vangelis’s epic ceremony from four years prior, because experimental composer Jan Randall’s score is used for a primitivist sports festival entitled “Quest.” Whatever this is, it’s much better than Winnipeg 1999.
Mediterranean Games (Tunis, Tunisia): Our musical excerpt here is a performance by a fusion group called Ouled Jouini, which combines Western beats and Tunisian string-band music in a way that heavily recalls the raï music of neighboring Algeria and its diaspora.
Winter Olympics (Salt Lake City, USA): If this seems a bit subtle for the States’ follow-up to what Sydney pulled off, it’s understandable. After all, the February ceremonies put together by producer Scott Givens came less than half a year after 9/11, and the solemn arrangement of the national anthem by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as the flag from the rubble was lifted was an entirely appropriate catharsis for the moment. The five tribes of Utah gave their own welcome dances, Don Mischer’s last ceremony parade featured his usual colorful animal costumes, an a cappella group called Eclipse did a lovely version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” as peeps dressed as pioneers mimed their suffering with what no doubt were some serious Oregon Trail maladies, and Copeland homages to the Wild West and the Transcontinental railroad worked in the Dixie Chicks (there was a time when they could be on the same stage as Bush, yes). LeAnn Rimes did the theme this time, her usual radio-friendly country pop on display in “Light the Fire Within,” while R. Kelly his “The Greatest” from the movie biopic of Ali. The real musical highlight of the opening, of course, is Sting and Yo-Yo Ma in their duet of “Fragile,” though I keep looking for a rumored show of Harry Connick, Jr. Again, not the best ceremony ever, but pleasant enough. Criticism of patriotic excess (which seems a bit harsh under the circumstances) and security demands here was thought to have “cursed” later efforts to host (I still dream of that show where Lady GaGa dedicates “New York, New York” to the world). Anyway, the closing took pains to showcase the diversity of American music, beginning with Josh Groban and Charlotte Church serenading some skaters with schmaltzy crowd-pleaser “The Prayer” before launching into a whirlwind tour of American contemporary song. From the pop of Christina Aguilera and N’Sync to the R&B of Earth, Wind, and Fire and the country-folk of Willie Nelson to (admittedly pretty schlocky) rock from the original KISS lineup (in their last live show), Bon Jovi, and Creed. It was nowhere near the best of what we’ve seen here, but for the last Olympics in the States under pretty depressing circumstances, you didn’t do too bad, Mitt.
FIFA World Cup (South Korea/Japan): Everybody’s got their hanbok on and the ceremonies are a lite version of what we got in Seoul with the usual court dance showcase, though some of the dancers do wear a variation on the instantly recognizable samurai topknot that was once the ultimate symbol of a leader’s power in feudal Japan. The second part is a bit more festive than the first, with some things that look like paper airplanes filling the middle of the stage, and winds up in a glorious set piece around a central pagoda with Korean children’s song “Arirang” as the closer. Like a lot of contemporary J-Pop and K-Pop, the theme song “Let’s Get Together Now” has a lot of the fun, twisty chords we often associate with Western urban contemporary R&B, though sometimes with a bit less spontaneous soul than in the original since there’s a lot of prefab groups. Lena Park is American-born and Bright Eyes very popular in Korea, but I’m surprised by how obscure the Japanese acts were when the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki or B’z could have been hired.
Commonwealth Games (Manchester, England): This may be the most politically correct set of ceremonies ever done, right from beginning to end. British multiculturalism at its most lively is celebrated in a show from David Volkwer and the team at Jack Morton Worldwide (who we’ll see quite a bit of this playlist), which clearly influenced London 2012 quite heavily. Lots of percussion and dancing figured into an extended introductory sequence based on a hip-hop track that heavily sampled George Clinton’s “One Nation (Under a Groove).” The actual live singing tends to be the stuff of Top 40 pop, like British reality show creation S Club and tenor Russell Watson singing “Faith of the Heart” (the bane of many Trekkies’ existence that would soon be used as the Enterprise theme song to many a longtime fans’ consternation). This is the first ceremony covered in enough detail here to demonstrate the end of the Queen’s Baton relay, the Commonwealth Games’ answer to the torch relay. A long dance sequence follows, centering around a performance by a surprisingly mediocre party band with more enthusiasm than talent, with only the protocol and some formal marching to break the very generic feel of the event. It was like a night in a European club: people of all ages, backgrounds, and physical/sexual descriptions are enjoying themselves and I can’t begrudge it, but it still feels more like a closing ceremony than the more explicitly national feel of many an opening ceremony. The closing was almost more memorable, including a very dignified showcase of different houses of worship as lighted balloon constructions in a parade and a simulation in allegory of children seeking to do something about hardships as seen in the news, but it has been taken down so I cannot share.
Asian Games (Busan, Korea): There is a decent-sized excerpt of some Korean children’s songs being performed in an authentic traditional setting.
Summer Special Olympics (Dublin, Ireland): The largest-scale international sporting event that Ireland has ever hosted, the Summer Special Olympics World Games are exactly what they sound like, a global version of the often more limited-scale competitions among individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities made possible by IOC co-operation with the Shriver family. The Shriver family and their friends’ speeches take up a grander portion of the ceremonies than do officials in other ones, so there’s usually not much time for big cultural programs, but I include this and several others mainly because it does constitute a major sporting event open to a wide area and because unlike the Paralympics, it does NOT occur concurrently with the Winter or Summer Olympics in the same location. There is in fact a kind of abstract, very European performance capturing Celtic veneration of the sun to showcase here, but this isn’t the Celtic extravaganza I’m looking forward to for Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games. It does have some pretty snazzy guests, though, including Riverdance back when they were hip, the Corrs, performance group Blue Teapot (percussion is common at these as it doesn’t require extensive training and can often include intellectually disabled performers as a consequence), and both classics and new tracks from U2.
Pan-American Games (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic): What happened here? How did the land of merengue and the source of some of our most beloved baseball players turn out something so bland for the Pan-American Games? Again, the answer probably lies in the poor standard set by earlier shows like Mar del Plata and Winnipeg, as there’s not a really high bar obviously by 2003. There are some volunteering making figures on the field, but the focus is largely on very regimented song-and-dance that, especially in the case of the routine to Víctor Víctor’s “Por amor,” doesn’t fit at all with the lively, rhythmic nature of the music in its true form. Overall, it wouldn’t be until 2007 that these Games really reached an Olympic threshold.
Southeast Asian Games (Hanoi, Vietnam): This show relies very heavily on light shows to convey elements of the mythology and culture of Vietnam. It’s mainly a clip-show, but a targeted one so I included it here.
South Asian Games (Islamabad, Pakistan): Delayed by three years by the start of the Afghanistan War nearby, these games held biennially since throughout the Indian Subcontinent almost weren’t held at all. The success story of the opening ceremony’s eventual staging is told in some interviews included in this video. A singer of ghazals, the heavily Persian-influenced local poetic form, blesses the Games before a rich tapestry of culture displays the nation of Jinnah and Malala in all its complex glory. Hadiqa Kiani, a very cosmopolitan star from coastal Karachi, delivers a very international-sounding theme song, and a very rock-influenced male pop singer continues the showcase of a vibrant, modern Pakistan defiant against the fundamentalism pulling it back from its future. Ali Arif, the director, does a good job of illustrating local traditions and I learned a lot from the cultural portion following the Parade and songs. The obligatory nature-and-seasons segment, gradually pulling together a map of Pakistan before giving each region its due. The great love story behind the naming of Lake Saiful Muluk, based on an old Sufi tale, represents the Pashtun northwest, another tragic romance (“Sassui Punnhun”) is set on the shores of the Indus, and a parade brings in props and dancers from Pashtunistan, Balochistan, Sindh, and Punjab, the four major provinces of the modern state. Some more typical stuff with children forming large shapes and an ending song by Faizal and Bilal wrap things up. The local color alone is worth watching, and it’s another great addition to our collection here.
UEFA Euro Cup (Portugal): Portugal doesn’t get a lot of these ceremonies, so it uses its opportunity with the European football championship to remind the world of its former glories as a trading and colonial nation with mock ships plowing the Main. Nelly Furtado, Canadian but of Portuguese descent, sings the theme song, “Força” (“Strength”), which she reprises in the closing performing around a giant orange ball.
Summer Olympics (Athens, Greece): Make no mistake, Athens steps up to the challenge of following up Sydney. A huge reflecting pool figures prominently in this maritime nation’s opening ceremony, brought to us by the Jack Morton Worldwide crew of Manchester fame. The little boy sailing a boat with the Greek flag is of course part of the “one kid” tradition Sydney made quasi-mandatory in these ceremonies. Ancient mythology and the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage figured heavily, since the legendary figure of the centaur and the emergence of the galaxy as Hera’s milk bookended the artistic program scored by Greek New Zealander John Psathas, and since a projection cube showing humanity’s many scientific achievements emphasized a theme of “humanity coming to understand itself.” However, there was a lot of local culture in there, particularly in the “Clepsydra” portion where Eros (Cupid to most Americans) guides two dreaming lovers through images and sounds suggesting the Minoan, Mycenaean, Classical, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and independent (not much emphasis on the maligned Ottomans, unsurprisingly) periods. The closing is definitely more about modern Greek folk culture, and it focuses on a traditional Greek harvest festival set to the energetic traditional dances and pentatonic music the land is known for. Some of the singers are of a very traditional bent, like Marinella and George Dalaras, while others are more contemporary pop stars like Anna Vissi and Sakis Rouvas, but all perform one flavor or another of the popular urban folk music called laïko that many worldwide associate with Greece. A practical “greatest hits” reel of some of the songs most popular overseas gets rattled off here and there throughout the ceremony. See if you can spot “Zorba’s Dance,” “Misirlou,” “Never on Sunday,” and “The White Rose of Athens.” Nobody throws a party like the Greeks, and if there was ever any doubt, this closing ceremony closes the book.
Mediterranean Games (Almería, Spain): For these Mediterranean Games, I’ve got a couple scenes for you from the performance group La Fura dels Baus, who gave that memorable fire ceremony in Barcelona back in 1992. Unfortunately most of their historical survey isn’t on in full, but they really do an unprecedented look at Spain’s history from the caves of Altamira through Roman, Muslim, and Catholic conquests, only to do a wacky left-field gesture with a little bit of cinema history. You see, Sergio Leone often went to the deserts and mountains around Almería (though not the coastal city itself obviously) when he wanted more authentic settings than he could get in his native Italy for his Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, and in his honor some typical Western scenes are reenacted to Ennio Morricone’s iconic Leone scores. Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat (a keystone of the anti-Franco movement) composes a fresh tune for the occasion, and David Bisbal, a mainstream Spanish pop star with an eye to the global Latin market who emerged on an American Idol doppelganger, Operación Triunfo, serenades us in the closing ceremony.
World Games (Duisburg, Germany): A “handback ceremony” of sorts starts off the opening for the world’s quadrennial competition for select sports (or in some cases more sports-like activities) not yet included in the Olympics. Whether one considers all of the events real sports, these are real Games with full-fledged ceremony protocol, and industrial Duisburg got the honors in 2005 for a very typical northwestern European show with all the characteristics (see Manchester 2002 for comparison) that I’ve outlined above. New Zealander Hayley Westenra’s lovely voice provides a classy start to the proceedings, and then the cultural program begins in earnest. College-age volunteers represent elements of industrialism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism in simple, brightly colored dance routines. Argentine-Spanish tenor José Cura brings the classical back into this odd juxtaposition of popular culture and high art (OK, odd by American stratified standards, I suppose). The almost obnoxiously corny song in the middle is the lowlight. There is an odd brilliance to what Nena, the German New Wave (Neue Deutsche Welle) star, does with her performances; her second one puts the most joyful spin I’ve ever seen on a song about nuclear apocalypse (“99 Red Balloons”).
Athletics World Champs (Helsinki, Finland): If Finland ever did a Portland-style “Keep Finland Weird” campaign, this would be it. Hosting the world’s foremost athletics competition in pouring rain, Finland truly brings on the wacky, not just with the central concept of a grizzled old wizard who travels through time in a pink pyramid to explore the event’s history (coming off like a cross between Dumbledore, Gandalf, and Doctor Who) but also with a Western-dressed all-female taïko trio and a group called Leningrad Cowboys doing a silly metal version in costume of “Goldfinger.” I am not making one word of that last sentence up. Italian pop-rock star Laura Bono, metal bands Nightwish and Apocalyptica (Finland is where metal has figured out how to conquer the charts best, though the results don’t always appeal to American purists, what with Nightwish’s melodicism reminiscent of Evanescence and Apocalyptica’s all-cello approach), local theme singer Geir Rönning, and flamenco guitarist Vicente Amigo add variety to the music here. To this eclectic bunch we can add some local color with folk band Värttinä and an unexpectedly solemn delivery of Sibelius’s “Finlandia” hymn. If the Finns wanted to shake off a lingering stereotype of being very dour in the face of nature and Russia, they’ve succeeded, as this was anything but predictable or glum.
Summer Universiade (Izmir, Turkey): The sama, or sema, the world-famous Sufi worship ceremony in which whirling dervishes spin around to trance-like music, is faithfully reenacted for the first of several versions at events in Turkey.
Southeast Asian Games (Manila, Philippines): It’s got a powerful private media scene and excellent singers, so you would expect the Philippines to deliver the goods on their Southeast Asia Games hosting gig. It starts off kind of strong, with what appears to be a peasant offering in honor of those coming to play, but things soon go sort of helter-skelter, even in the opinion of many Filipino commenters who had been hoping for more. The nature ceremony following is kind of meh. José Mari Chan’s composition for a teen girl singer looks and sounds a lot like the Winnipeg 1999 one. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the terrible camera quality on this capture, but I kept wanting something worthy of the many incredible athletes the islands can boast. The ceremony does end with an alt-rock band, the legendary Rivermaya, so at least there’s something hip to close us out on a positive note.
Winter Olympics (Turin, Italy): Ric Birch pulls off another cracking good opening ceremony, this time giving his “whole nation” touch to the traditionally regionalist Winter Games, now through his own company, Filmmaster Events. Speed skaters on rollerblades, dressed in the very Italian color red, help build the drama of the anvil-striking “shaman” figure that starts the ceremony, and a little alpine show with cows and waltzers does its due diligence to the alpine region of Torino itself, but this is really about the Italian culture the world knows and loves. Nina Rota’s score to Fellini’s “Amarcord” backs Italian-born Carla Bruni (not yet the French first lady) carrying the flag, the first of many models featured as tributes to nearby Milan’s powerful role in global fashion. Again, there has to be a preteen singing the anthem if there isn’t one in the ceremony (the Sydney law). Performers formed a giant skier before the historical portion began. Eschewing Roman material that would seem redundant in the Olympic context, Torino’s opening ceremony flips from Dante’s Inferno through a medieval flag raising, a decadent Renaissance segment full of nods to period art and Vivaldi, the harsh mechanics of Futurism, and even a tribute to one sport that will likely never feature in the Olympics due to their focus on human-powered events, motorsports. The Olympic flag carriers march to, among other things, Verdi’s march from Aida. Peter Gabriel’s version of “Imagine,” preceded by a poem from Yoko herself, is a late highlight, but I’m shocked to see so much of the ceremony up and yet not the perfect culmination, Luciano Pavarotti’s last public performance (albeit lip-synced due to both his fatal cancer and the usual impracticalities of projecting the human voice through such a large, populated outdoor arena) of “Nessun Dorma.” Just seems a little incomplete without that, so if anyone finds it, let me know and I’ll add! The wild and woolly carnival that closes the games isn’t in full up on YouTube, but there is a parachute dance show by masked men in puffy suits and Andrea Bocelli’s “Because We Believe” memorably features.
Commonwealth Games (Melbourne, Australia): Jack Morton Worldwide is back with another set of Commonwealth Games ceremonies, paying tribute to the city that got 1956’s Olympics, with its own homier, less glittery culture. If you’re not from Melbourne, even more if you’re not Australian, even more if you’re not from anywhere in the Commonwealth, this is a bit of a “just go with it thing,” since they don’t exactly hand-hold through unfamiliar cultural references. It starts with a boat relay carrying Aussie rules football players and a tram dropped into the middle of the stage, the tram introducing a colorful cast of characters played by a wide range of male and female dancers (some clearly in drag). A boy chases a duck in a surreal bit full of the whimsy of poet-cartoonist Michael Leunig (a native Melbourner), including a great bit with Wurundjeri-style renderings of fish and totems. Watch ballerinas and motorcyclists float around to local rock band the Church’s ‘80s hit “Under the Milky Way.” The Cat Empire use their trademark Gypsy folk sound to do the Munich thing with different regions’ musical sounds in the Parade of Nations. Delta Goodrem, who followed in Kylie Minogue’s footsteps by leapfrogging from the cast of long-running soap “Neighbours” to pop stardom, does a rather average theme song, “Together We Are One.” The closing ceremony continues the distinctive offbeat theme, complete with plenty of dancers in pink and a wacky poem saluting the volunteers. Performers are a very indie-leaning bunch, including Grinspoon (alt-rock but not as hard-edged as their rivals Silverchair), Paul Kelly, Ben Lee, and Sarah Blasko (here covering Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”), though the Bodyrockers whose “I Like the Way (You Move)” is featured are very much mainstream pop. After the longest preview I’ve ever seen for India’s 2010 hosting, Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan sings a song, and Barry Humphries’ wacky Borat-like satire of old-fashioned Aussie values, Dame Edna, makes a surprise appearance with a sardonic song. John Farnham, an English-born Melbourner since childhood, gets a much bigger spot than he did in Sydney, and he closes out one of the more unique shows on this list.
FIFA World Cup (Germany): Not much we haven’t seen before here, just better camera resolution. Bavarian whip-cracking? Check. Oom-pah bands and silly carnival hats? Check. Schuhlplatter (see Munich)? Check. The one new touch. Oh, I guess there is the bunch of dudes playing washboards in the often goofily obscene-looking fashion in which one does (watch to see what I mean). The transition from that to a dancehall group called Seeed with a pep song is kind of jarring. Oh, and there’s also a montage showing the countries as giant hats, so there’s that.
Central American and Caribbean Games (Cartagena, Colombia): There’s a general air of a cumbia carnival to this closing ceremony excerpt (definitely not a bad thing), with a child band called Dyonnel doing the honors here.
Asian Games (Doha, Qatar): David Atkins finally comes out of Ric Birch’s shadow here to fully continue the Sydney legacy. Like its skyscraper-filled near-neighbor Dubai, Doha has its problems as a host, including small size and the deplorable working conditions that have marred stadium-building for its upcoming 2022 World Cup, but Atkins’ glorious ceremony is in a class by itself. The closest thing we will likely ever have in a long while to the Arab World’s Olympics opening, Atkins’s opening wisely avoids modern geopolitical considerations and explicit references to the Quran (both contrary to the international, secular spirit of such competitions) to focus on the most positive contributions of the Arabs from an age when their trading activity and scientific and philosophical endeavors kept the Far East and Europe in touch and the classical legacy the Olympics draw on alive. Kids start the ceremony forming a traditional Qatari carpet and then, in a great touch, use candles to illuminate the universal Arab greeting, “As-salamu alaikum” (“Peace be upon you”, paralleling the Hebrew liturgy Shalom Aleichem). This teaser only hints at the wonders to come. In a dazzling trip showing the unmistakeable imprint of his past work in Sydney, Atkins weaves an allegorical tale of the Qatari as a voyager in the mold of Sinbad (or indeed his own parallel Odysseus), nicknamed “The Seeker,” who goes out pearl-fishing only to get overturned by a freak storm but then rescued by a falcon who takes him on a continental tour. Later, after the Seeker invites all Asia to his long-delayed wedding, he and his son journey through representations of the many sciences, such as geography, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, chemistry, and medicine, that Arab societies cultivated due to their indispensability to trade, as the astrolabe that serves as the Seeker’s north star to begin with hinted at. My description doesn’t convey properly the thrilling wonder of this ceremony, but when you see the dramatic sinking of the pearl-fishing dhows amid deep-sea creatures, the wife’s wonderfully choreographed lamentation dance, the gorgeous costumes and artwork of the Asian regions tribute, and the great homages to the sciences to what sounds a bit like an Arab take on Ravel’s “Bolero,: you’ll see why I think this is one of the highlights of this collection. I hope nobody splits it up so you lose the epic sweep. After something like this, songs from Hong Kong actor Jacky Cheung (“Together Now”), young Bollywood darling Sunidhi Chauhan (“Reach Out”), and Lebanese soprano Majida el Roumi (“Light the Way”), and the Qatari royal equestrian riding a nonplussed horse up to light the astrolabe cauldron all seem kind of anticlimactic. The closing ceremony, with some pretty tacky takes on the Thousand and One Nights, is not included here because you can’t top the almost cinematic opener. You…just…can’t.
Winter Universiade (Turin, Italy): This outdoor ceremony, conveying an ocean journey in the Sydney/Doha mold with giant creature balloons, hardly fits those earlier models. It’s pretty imposing if you’re there, I suppose.
Copa America (Venezuela): In this South-America-wide soccer competition’s opening, a teenage girl sings a decent song, everyone in their usual colorful Venezuelan garb. More or less free of Bolivarian peacocking, the ceremony is just innocent fun, continuing with a guy named Ose of which I was able to find out nothing despite his singing the theme song. The macaw mascot is an interesting touch, and the harp band at the end is tight even if the lyrics are pretty standard international sports tropes (I’m trilingual in Spanish and French, in case anybody wonders).
All-Africa Games (Algiers, Algeria): The best-quality tape (and one of the few of any extension) that I’ve found of an All-Africa Games ceremony is from the 2007 round in Algiers, and it’s pretty intriguing. Some men in traditional Berber costume (the headdresses remind me of those a local elder or marabout) do a standard chant with a very Maghreb-like feel, before a somewhat more elaborate segment with female singers doing roughly the same thing. The coverage is in Arabic so I don’t have a lot of background on what’s going on, but I also wanted to include a French-language clip of raï singer Cheb Tarik making what was, considering the iconoclasm of many performers of this Arab-Western musical blend, the brave move of returning to perform with Guinean kora (thumb piano) legend Mory Kanté.
Pan-American Games (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil): Samba legend Elza Soares’ national anthem and the countdown are included separately, but most of the ceremony is included here through the hard work of Ikarus361; I apologize in advance for some very chatty announcers, the bane of broadcasting everywhere. Thank goodness it’s up on YouTube in some form, because this is where the Pan American Games officially come up to par with the Olympics and Asian Games. The ceremony is colorful and bright, as one expects with the land of the world’s most famed Carnaval. A gifted boy drummer leads into rocker Arnaldo Antunes and samba singer Ana Costa’s performance of the most unique event theme song I have ever heard. “Viva Essa Energia” (“Live This Energy”) was co-written, in a great tribute to the country’s rock history, by Antunes (of new wave band and rock en portugues pioneer Titâs; it means Titans, get your mind out of the gutter) and Liminha (of influential hard-rock band Os Mutantes). For comparison, this would be like Sting and Mick Jagger collaborating on a theme song for London’s 2012 Summer Games that perfectly captured the spirit of British music, since “Viva Essa Energia” gives a perfect example of the almost hypnotic circularity of a lot of Brazilian urban music, particularly that of the Rio area. The ceremony itself, coordinated by the world-class choreographers of Rio’s many samba schools grabbed my attention right at the beginning by using perfectly expressive musical backgrounds to elevate what could have been just another Don Mischer carnival into something more. The “energy of the sun” is displayed with a massive panorama of the vast Amazonian rainforest with Romantic program music in the background, the “energy of water” with Rio’s connection to the beach and Jobim’s bossa nova (literally “new wave”) done by great singer Céu to accompany, the “energy of humanity” with a symbolic passage from infancy to carnival maturity backed by singer-songwriter Adriano Calcanhotto and Cordel do Fogo Encantado’s combination of rock and northeastern coast music. Poetic fusionist Chico César puts the cherry on top with a dance to his “Paz.” Overall, this show by Scott Givens, whose Five Points set the tone for subtle but spirited ceremonies, certainly piqued my curiosity for Brazil’s World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016 gigs.
European Youth Summer Olympic Festival (Belgrade, Serbia): Not a lot to write home about here, just some typical dance shows and Marija Serifović singing her Eurovision track. Included here for comparison, but really, seen one seen ‘em all with this sort of ceremony.
Athletics World Champs (Osaka, Japan): Yep. Osaka brings some pretty hammy actors, some adorable kids, and Sarah Brightman to kick off their track meet. You can guess which part is most entertaining, namely Brightman’s “Running,” a direct takeoff on Holst’s “Jupiter” movement. Again, Brightman’s voice can take an unbelievably corny concept on paper and make it seem almost magical.
Summer Universiade (Bangkok, Thailand): Lively drumming, an imposing temple pyramid, a procession to exotic bell sounds, elaborate interpretive dance? All present. This tantalizing glimpse at the opening ceremony of Bangkok’s gathering of world university athletes makes it look a cut above the 1998 Asian Games, while some sensual pop group performs a song as well.
Pacific Games (Apia, Samoa): Walter Fraser and his assistants explain their ceremony, even though you only see clips of it. Samoa is of course a Polynesian area, but we don’t get enough time to see much of the particularities of this area beyond a brief segment on war goddess Napa Nu’a. This is just to give a general idea of the ceremonies that are out there in this region. I have yet to see a whole one uploaded.
Summer Special Olympics (Shanghai, China): There’s a couple reasons Shanghai’s getting the 2007 Special Olympics World Games was a good idea. For one, it helped improve the image of the country after lots of bad publicity for the practice of giving up children with disabilities for adoption or infanticide to “try for another,” as per the nation’s “One Child Policy” and traditional agrarian priorities. Secondly, it serves as something of a trial run for Beijing. The large mass of drummers in the opening, the tai-chi, Lang Lang, all will feature again at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The one major exception looks back to Doha somewhat, with a fisherwoman being rescued from the storm by a lucky dragon.
Southeast Asian Games (Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand): This SEA Games ceremony (as they often abbreviate its name) has a formula that’ll become familiar here. Held biennially, there is usually a clear delineation between segments with the lights drawn down, an MC in English and the native language (the former usually speaking a dialect that appears to be the result of very quick script translation), and a variety of plug-in standard shows dealing with some major aspect of the region. A local musical form, usually looking like interpretative dance as much of the country was influenced by Indian styles; a historical legend; a local sport; the general principle of nature; and the unity of the region tend to get their own little showpieces. The Isan, mountain peoples of the hosting Korat region who are more Lao than Thai, perform their procession. Next, while portraying how rail linked the modern country together, the committee does something that to me seems in inappropriately poor taste for the occasion. Lady Mo, a heroine who helped fight off reprisals during a war that saw Laos (the next host) subjugated, is celebrated here with her statue. Maybe it’s a matter of opinion since Laos is never mentioned, but would France like it if London had put the Duke of Wellington in its opening ceremony in 2012? After this bit of irredentism, the focus is back on the people’s hospitality with some songs from a male pop star. The cauldron is beautifully sculpted and one of those two-stage deals where the first is lit and then it moved to light the second. The eco-fairy segment is pretty cloying as much as I agree with the basic message, and the statement by announcers that the king’s commitment to the scientific community’s consensus is like rain sent from heaven is another aspect of the sometimes excessive-feeling focus on the royals in Thai ceremonies. A Southeast Asian unity segment is de rigeur for the end, so now you have the formula. It’s a Barcelona ‘92 presentation with Moscow ’80 production values, and the next couple will follow suit.
UEFA Euro Cup (Austria/Switzerland): Euro 2008 continues the silly tradition of abstract opening ceremonies, here showing a cow being chased through some mountains simulated by children carrying greenish-white boxes. Skiing and the Viennese waltz are both mimicked by articulated figures until they leave the stage and volunteers form the logo. The closing brings back the waltzers in balloon dresses, but adds people (not sure of gender) dressed in eighteenth-century garb (a reference to Mozart and Haydn?) before messing around with players dressed like playing cards and a song from Enrique Iglesias (“Can You Feel It?,” quite an overused title I’d say).
Summer Olympics (Beijing, China): Let start off by saying that this Olympics as a competition is controversial for a reason. Many were displaced from their homes or tortured for dissent to create a sanitized version of the crowded, polluted capital for tourists coming to the Games, and the post-Games future of venues has followed the same sorry pattern as with many bids. China’s human rights record is not the best, and it’s understandable that there was concern about hosting the Games here. None of that, however, takes away from the beauty and breathtaking scope of the opening ceremony, which doesn’t get enough credit for barely mentioning anything about communism at all in its focus on ancient cultural contributions, with the exception of one Maoist song sung by a girl (lip-synching for another deemed not cute enough) in the intro. As for the common complaint that London embodied free-spirited Western individuality and the Beijing ceremony rigid Chinese lockstep on account of the latter’s use of many people “doing the same thing” at once, a cursory glance at this playlist and indeed at the London show itself should disabuse us of the notion that mass production numbers are somehow limited to communist states. Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers among many well-regarded films, delved deep into China’s millennia-old culture to deliver a feast of tradition worthy of the great David Atkins spectacles. I use the CCTV (Chinese television) broadcast to show the “meat” of the ceremony not just because of the HD quality and completeness but also because it has great captions at the top of the screen explaining things. Many focused on the drummers who marked the countdown to the games’ opening on LED percussion, all timed to open at 8:08:08 PM on August 8, 2008 because of the lucky status of the number eight in Chinese culture. It’s the artistic section that I give you here, since that’s what this playlist is about, and that’s where this ceremony is so breathtaking. Zhang dazzles with one homage after another to China’s great inventions (paper, fireworks—of course, the compass, the kite) and to cultural icons such as Chinese landscape painting, Confucius’ “Analects,” Beijing opera, taiqiquan, and the nation’s growing space program. The music, of course, is great too. Lang Lang duets with an adorable girl on the Yellow River Cantata, an airy piano piece composed during China’s darkest hour in World War II that’s effectively the Pacific War equivalent of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Concerto. Sarah Brightman’s at her most angelic in a duet with Liu Huan on the theme “You and Me.” The song is a bit of a cross between Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and Webby’s “Music of the Night,” and once again nothing I say can convey how touching it is even to someone not used to finding such sap moving, even when the children’s choir reprises it for the amazing suspended torch lighting. Again, nothing from the comparatively sedate closing ceremony, because the opening raised the bar so high that what can you do?
Winter Universiade (Harbin, China): The Queen City of Manchuria does a ceremony here that has a very Russian quality, right down to a “Kalinka” rendition. This isn’t surprising, since Manchuria’s closeness to the Russian Far East has always lent itself to some Russian cultural influence. A Russian male soprano (don’t know how else to describe his voice) named Vitas, apparently popular in China as the “Prince of the Dolphin Voice,” performs a tune for the occasion called “Crane’s Crying” as skaters perform; Vitas’s management long denied his marriage to a woman and children, and he is a good example of the country’s complex relationship with Western definitions of machismo. Occasionally something more distinctively Chinese peeks through, including elements of martial arts and a Beijing opera sample, but there’s a lot more Russian ballet and techno-pop elements in this very regional show.
Mediterranean Games (Pescara, Italy): Starting with a cheeky countdown with sheep, this picturesque community in Abruzzo on the Adriatic is our first complete Mediterranean Games opening ceremony. The flag-twirling and opera carnival both harken back to Turin, as does the futuristic hip-hop sequence introducing the mascot. A ballerina closes things out before the parade, and there are segments more focused on the sea in general that follow, including a tribute to a mysterious local statue of an ancient deity called the “Warrior of Capestrano.” Eros Rammazzoti, perhaps Italy’s most popular vocalist of today, does a tribute to Michael Jackson at the water ceremony (he died the day before, June 25), and the closing segment looks forward to “Domani.” Liberi Di does a heavy-duty acrobatics performance in the closing ceremony, and large Venus figures dance to New Age music in something intriguing that I can’t quite decipher.
Asian Youth Games (Singapore): Singapore’s well-trained youth performance groups take center stage in the opening ceremonies of the Asian Games’ first effort at a youth competition. The kids are really talented, to be sure, though the scripting is a little clichéd. “Asia’s Zest,” the first of three segments, sounds like a buffet and is supposed to symbolize the cosmopolitan island state’s diverse background. It’s unclear what “Garden in the City” refers to, but it does shade pretty well into “Spirit of Evolution,” a modernity-centered bit. There’s a video of a young singer named Amni Musfirah doing the theme song, “Asia’s Youth, Our Future” in a re-arranged version at the closing, pretty standard stuff.
Summer Universiade (Belgrade, Serbia): The homeland of Andrić, Tesla, and other luminaries, as one screen projection reminds us, Serbia appears to be conscious of their image problem after years of questionable leadership during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. A typically modern and post-national ceremony, with little local tradition, heralds Belgrade’s biggest sporting event yet, the 50th anniversary (25th edition) of the biennial Universiade. Most of the events following the Parade of Nations, unlike the Easter Egg distribution in traditional dress (I think) that came earlier, concentrate on the impact of computer technology that has transformed life in the fifty years of the Universiade’s existence. Dancers mime trippy expressions of how humanity appears to have mastered the fabric of space-time itself.
Lusophony Games (Lisbon, Portugal): Devoted to the Portuguese-speaking community of nations worldwide, the second Lusophony Games return to the motherland in Lisbon, and the top set piece is an ambitious set of totems representing different aspects of nature.
World Games (Kaohsiung, Taiwan): Given the controversies over the “One China policy” that force other countries to recognize either China or Taiwan, the economic powerhouse between China and Japan is unlikely to host an Olympics in the near future, one reason they smartly bid on the World Games for an alternative showcase. Possessing a vibrant pop culture on par with South Korea and Japan, Chinese Taipei (as it is known in international sports competitions) has what it takes to deliver a memorable ceremony. The schoolchildren’s “Ode to Joy” pays tribute to a common tradition in earlier Olympics to use Beethoven’s final masterpiece. Don’t miss the initial segment, which incorporates the heritage of Taiwan’s Austronesian natives, who predate Chinese settlement by thousands of years and share many similarities in dress and music to their Melanesian and Polynesian cousins farther south. The world-egg motif pops up at the start with some kids who look a lot like the characters from that old video game Pikmin, but it’s really the Formosan tribes’ dances that are show-stoppers, including their canoe prep ceremony that will remind many of the Maori. A ring dance later on has a more Amerindian ring to it. All in all it’s a fascinating reminder of the similarities between seemingly far-flung cultures. Taiwanese puppet shows heavily influenced by the northern mainland bring in the Chinese element, but with enormous costumes and more Japanese-style puppetry (the country was occupied by Japan for half a century) that tweak it ever so slightly from what you saw in Beijing. Colorfully dressed figures swashbuckle in what appears an homage to Ming refugee Roxinga’s great pirate fleet that roamed the East China Sea in the seventeenth century, only to give way to a guy coming out of what looks like a virtual reality suit to music reminiscent of Nobuo Uematsu’s great Final Fantasy scores. Since the bicyclists who start the final segment use LED lights and dancers soon begin to fill intricate patterns Dance Dance Revolution style, I sense a subtle tribute to video games, one of East Asia’s most popular cultural exports and in some form a possible part of the World Games in the future. A great alto singer (identified later as “Little Yellow Tiger”) prepares us for the arrival of the Parade of Nations. After the official addresses, a closing concert kicks off with Hayley Westenra, back from Duisburg 2005. By now, she’s become a member of Celtic Woman, a popular folk-pop group, and she duets with Mandopop (Mandarin pop music) superstar and Taiwanese icon Shin, bringing in Russell Watson (from Manchester 2002) later on. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from an operatic pop concert, mixing formulaic Mandopop with old-school versions of Western favorites like “Amazing Grace,” “Volare,” “The Prayer,” and “Nessun Dorma.” Westenra does throw in a shout-out to her New Zealand homeland with a duet with Watson on Maori love ballad Pokarekare Ana.
European Youth Summer Olympic Festival (Tampere, Finland): This funky closing ceremony seems to include a rap-metal group performing while cheerleaders on stilts (and some not) gyrate surrounded by those big floppy plastic mascots you see waving in the breeze outside of car dealerships. Soon the stilt cheerleaders get off their stilts and do acrobatics on suspended hoops to trance music. Some belly dancers also point the way toward Trabzond, the Turkish Black Sea port hosting the 2011 version of this biennial European youth sports competition.
Aquatics World Champs (Rome, Italy): Just as the World Athletics Championship are an umbrella competition in Olympic off years for everything, from throwing events like the discus to traditional foot races, that fits under the athletics (track and field) definition, so the World Aquatics Championship is a grand master contest in all major non-mechanical water sports, including swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming. Appropriately, opening ceremony entertainment tends to rely heavily on water ballet and to center on a theme of water’s importance to civilization. For Rome’s turn hosting the biennial tourney, Italy’s Studio Festi brought its trademark wizardry from the Turin Games (in their “Renaissance to Baroque” section) to bear on a dance sequence that’s actually all on land, even if it does pay tribute to water’s fluidity.
Asian Martial Arts Games (Bangkok, Thailand): In another tastefully prepared Thai ceremony that makes me hungry for chicken in peanut sauce, the host of a one-off event that tried to give all combat sports their own Asian Games gives us a great procession as an appetizer. We are thus prepared for a side of traditional dance and an entrée of chaotic-looking but flawlessly choreographed sword-fighting. For dessert, feast your eyes and ears on Tony Jaa, the star of Thailand’s foremost martial arts action franchise, Ong Bak, as he does some epic muay thai moves in the role of the Ramayana’s badass monkey warrior, Hanuman.
FIFA U-20 World Cup (Egypt): I guess I’ve kind of been spoiled by Doha’s Asian Games ceremony in 2006. The land of towering pyramids and mosques, Cleopatra and Saladin, surely has some breathtaking spectacle in it, but the world’s foremost youth soccer competition will not be where it is unleashed on a waiting world audience. I guess the ceremony does show the best side of Egypt as the heartbeat of the modern Arab street, a place where DJ Ahmed Essam could do a modern techno show projected on a huge globe and star Amr Mostafa could perform what are frankly a pretty cool pan-Mediterranean tune for what amounts to more of an ad than an opening ceremony. It’s a good ad, though, and a great tune as these go.
Jeux de la Francophonie (Beirut, Lebanon): Join me, your Francophone travel guide, to explore this ceremony put together by and for the French-speaking world, all scored by Lebanese-born film soundtrack giant Gabriel Yared. The Francophonie games have a cultural component in the mold of the Ancient Olympics and early modern ceremonies (they were eliminated in the Modern Games by World War II) .In one of the Middle East’s most fractious countries, one common thread is the lasting legacy of France’s post-World-War I mandate in Lebanon. This gem tries to work in different aspects of Lebanese history through various notable cities there. It starts kind of heavy-handed with a chintzy tribute to the alphabet’s birth in Phoenician Byblos, but the Sufi dervish ceremony from Mamluk Tripoli, the heavenly Orthodox choir from the Kadisha Valley, the authentic Levantine dabke from Baalbek, the Armenian duduk player from Anjar, and the dance of the harem of the Chehab emirs from Chouf all are terrific slices of life rendered here. A café band from Sidon exemplifies the multi-faceted, complex music the Lebanese coast is renowned for, some Tyrian “princesses” demonstrate the story of Phoenician commerce to evocative music, and contemporary dance music takes us right up to the introduction for the host town of Beirut. An oasis of cultural coexistence once (symbolized by a muezzin and a classical singer of an Ave maria), the city was torn apart by nationalism and religious strife as the twentieth century wore on, but it did produce its own icon in Magida el-Roumi, who gets the keynote spot for the rest of the ceremony and is as expressive as she was in Doha. She closes out the ceremony with a theme song done with Senegalese legend Youssou N’Dour.
Asian Indoor Games (Hanoi, Vietnam): Some maidens carry long branches in the manner of a traditional Vietnamese processions at this, the biggest event ever hosted by the nation on the Mekong. Later, standard mass gymnastics takes place, but there are women in ao dai dance with large hats to give it a more local flavor. People dance on the backs of hobby-horse costumes as well in what appears to be a demonstration of Vietnam’s unique water puppetry. A huge projection screen livens up the proceedings of the only event ever devoted to indoor-non-combat events by the Olympic Council of Asia, which merged indoor and martial arts games for 2013.
East Asian Games (Hong Kong, China): This regional competition gives us a window into the self-perception of Hong Kong, once the great financial and mercantile engine of the Chinese region until Chinese and Korean development rendered it just one of many great business centres in the area. The ceremony is colorful and full of local flavor, beginning with a performance centered on the junks of the old Pearl River delta and a song dating to the old colonial days courtesy of Roman Tam. Modern cantopop diva Joey Yung introduces the glittering modern city with a song entitled “Run Forward,” then we swing right back to serenity with a couple sentimental songs by actor-singer extraordinaire Andy Lau. The theme song is the usual “believe in yourself” pap, this time in the form of “You Are the Legend.” A little bit of heavy drumming suggestive of the mainland’s ceremony the prior year precedes the Parade of Nations. Singers on boats take us out at the end. Check out the closing ceremony for more contemporary Asian pop.
Southeast Asian Games (Vientiane, Laos): It’s back: that combination of local cultures you rarely learn about in American schools, charming musical performances with ‘80s keyboards, and English narration blissfully unaware of how the Internet can rip apart anything coming off like stereotypical Engrish. Like the Tampere European Youth Summer Olympics Festival, this 25th edition is a golden jubilee commemorating 50 years of the Southeast Asian nations’ sports festival, which began in 1959 when the region was a very different place. Laos’s cultural performances start with a Chinese-funded light show (Team Beijing is now in demand for a lot of smaller countries looking to spruce up their opening ceremonies, for obvious reasons). A variety of ethnic groups who haven’t always gotten along symbolically have representatives in an elaborate dance, centered on the two elephant mascots (the nation is nicknamed “Land of 1,000 Elephants”) and accompanied by the characteristic barrel drums and khaen (mouth organ, basically similar to pan-pipes) of the region. Various animal, plant, and tribal costumes figure in the next interpretative dance (in Southeast Asia it’s arguably more important than social dance), part of the SEA Games’ regular reminder to focus on the region’s environmental problems (particularly deforestation on rubber and palm plantations). Some pretty disturbingly militaristic patter introduces the next segment, basically praising communist warlord Kaysone Phomvihane (who established the current one-party regime) for instilling virtues of courage in today’s youth in the tradition of Sin Xay, a seventeenth-century epic hero akin to El Cid, Beowulf, Ulysses, etc. The derring-do on stage, including swordplay with some pretty sharp instruments, is kind of impressive even with the questionable politicking (as you may remember, Thailand kind of asked for it the previous occasion in 2007). Eventually, little kids take over and the teenagers are revealed in a climactic number as people who “love to study and are [sic] sport” before the region comes together in the unity piece. In my opinion, some of the captions are almost redundant since the intent is pretty obvious from the execution of the song and dance, but darned if you’re not going to get one every time. There is some hypnotic beauty in the rice-harvesting part which comes in part 9 of the opening ceremony (as per langvannavong’s playlist), and it carries over more or less into parts 10 and 11 where a royal procession features an actor who seems to be impersonating Fa Ngum, the 14th-century founder of the modern Lao state. The closing ceremony has much the same feel, and it really gets going in part 4 of langvannavong (thanks BTW for uploading it) as we get a taste of the Lao New Year parade. Some area mythology follows, showing the story of how agriculture is made possible by the cutting of a great vine choking the land by a couple represented by the lion-dancing costumes from the New Year’s. The farmer’s rockets take a while to set up, but the result is spectacular. Next we get a great boat race as often heralds the harvest in the upper Mekong valley. The end is a nondescript farewell. Really, I mention this ceremony primarily for educational value rather than entertainment, as the sheer volume of culture on display will enthrall the curious.
Winter Olympics (Vancouver, Canada): One of the few Olympic ceremonies we have here on YouTube in 100% complete fashion, partly since the Vancouver organizing committee graciously posted it themselves, is the last major work of the master David Atkins. As always, there’s some other segments that qualify as cultural, some of it great (like the local First Nations tribes dancing to welcome the athletes), some of it meh (Nikki Yanovsky is a charming but not very exciting interpreter of “O Canada” and the gravel-voiced Garou’s “Un peu plus haut, un peu plus loin” near the end will be unlikely to sway you if you don’t already love Quebec chanson), and some of it downright awful (Bryan Adams and Nelly Furtado’s “Bang the Drum” is one of the worst Olympic themes of all time). K.d. lang’s amazing version of fellow Canuck Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is an Easter egg for those who stick through Atkins’ full masterpiece, narrated by Canadian Hollywood patriarch Donald Sutherland. On the opposite side of the world from Sydney and in the opposite climate from Doha, Atkins spins his now-familiar but still spellbinding tale as he takes us from the vistas of nature through the journeys of mankind all the way to the vibrant pulse of modern urban life. The polar bear (a native totem called a Kermode) and the cracking of the “ice” before massive orca whales projected from above swim by seem particularly poignant in light of the uncertain fate of a warming Arctic. Adoptive Vancouverite Sarah McLachlan sings “Ordinary Miracle” (from the Charlotte’s Web soundtrack) to accompany a tribute to Canada’s forests in one of the weaker segments, though not through any lack of her vocal chops. The French Canadian version of “the devil went down to Georgia” legend, a haunted Chasse-galerie that chases a voyageur until the latter bests its demonic occupant at fiddling, starts with folk-pop singer Loreena McKennit (of 1990s “Mummers’ Dance” fame) serves as a vehicle for exploring the Quebec legacy. This ceremony’s “featured kid” is a teenage boy who floats through a wheat field to a re-recording by Joni Mitchell that is one of the best versions of “Both Sides Now” I’ve ever heard. After these “human journey” parts, the “technological awakening” part comes in the form of a towering mountain with Vancouver traffic lights thundering below, ending with a slam poet to reference Canadian urban culture, one who’s actually pretty good. The closing ceremony is the usual mix of humor and music, starting with a punk-pop band called Inward Eye (not much to write home about) and some snowboarding stunts for the kids. The awful song “Let’s Have a Party” is sung by an Anglo (Yanofsky), a First Nations representative (Derek Miller), and a Québecois (Canadian Idol winner Eva Avila), in the style of overhyped later performer Avril Lavigne. We get a big dose of comedy as three actors back from their profitable exile, William Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael J. Fox, all attempt dry standup routines with varying success, and as much as I’m not a huge fan of his I must say Michael Bublé’s version of “The Maple Leaf Forever” out-entertains them all. Some more silliness ensues as his showboating snowballs (pun intended) into a giant hockey game and a cavalcade of stereotypes like moose and beavers dancing around to an old voyageur anthem performed by Quebec folk greats La Bottine Souriante (that’s the smiling boot, by the way). The concert portion was hardly as great as you’d expect: how I would have loved to see blasts from the past like Bachman Turner Overdrive or Rush, to say nothing of alternative heavyweights like Metric or the Barenaked Ladies. Instead, we get a pretty ho-hum set of contemporary acts, in which Nickelback, I kid you not, is the highlight. That’s not entirely fair, maybe, as Alanis Morrissette is in pretty good form, but hip-hop collective k-os (I better get Drake at Pan-American Games 2015 in Toronto), Scrap Arts Music’s pan-banging shenanigans, Avril and her French doppelganger Marie-Mai, and Simple Plan don’t show the Canadian musical legacy at its best by any means. Even Shania Twain would be less cheesy than some of what we got here, and Hedley shouldn’t go anywhere near thinking they’re edgy just because they deliver in the chorus of their hit “Cha-Ching” the least family-friendly line ever heard in an English-language song at one of these ceremonies (you’ll see what I mean). Even though they only used him to usher out the flame from that beautiful campfire cauldron, I prefer to think of Neil Young’s version of “Long May You Run” as the real closing note for these Games, as it outclasses much of the music found in the closing.
South American Games (Medellin, Colombia): These quadrennial games, held in Winter Olympics years across the continent, got a fantastic opening ceremony that is the first of several made-in-Colombia spectacles I’ll be reviewing here. It’s the work of none other than a Cirque de Soleil grad, Franco Dragone, and his CultureFit production company. “Echoes: A Fantastic Voyage through Antioquia” (Antioquia is the local term for the mountain regions of Colombia) is the title of this show that takes us back through time rather than forward like many opening ceremony shows. A child discovers the figures of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous visual artist whose sculptures are heavily influenced by the exaggerated proportions of ancient Neolithic Venus figurines, and begins his journey back to the source of all life. First we see the great textile work of the Andean natives represented in pulled ribbons, then the vital importance of coffee to the region and of its brewer fire to civilization. Models represent Medellín’s prominence in fashion (the world-famed Betty la fea, the most adapted telenovela on Earth and the source of America’s own Ugly Betty, was set in a fashion magazine based there), and afterwards it’s on to the horse without which modern Latin American culture could not exist. The imported horse gives way to the autochthonous wildlife of Colombia’s diverse jungles and mountain forests, coalescing at last upon the condor (whose freedom is symbolized by gymnastic acrobats) that figures so heavily in the legends of the area. Finally, spheres that look like those really bouncy Superballs roll around with the image of Botero’s famed Adam and Eve sculptures from the intro, calming down to reveal a gorgeous ballet around the orchid, the central symbol of life’s resilience and adaptability as it can survive virtually anywhere. The cauldron harks back to the great radiant figures on Quechua art, looking for what it’s worth like a second Sun. The closing ceremony is equally arresting, conducted entirely as “Urban Performing” (i.e. outdoor street theatre) and put together by La Fura dels Baus, that great Spanish circus that did the Barcelona closing and the Almería 2005 ceremony further back on this playlist. It starts out as a carnival-style parade with all the attendant native, African, and European influences before heading for the side of a building come nightfall. People ride a giant boat suspended from wires to simulate the river voyages of a priest explorer named José Celestino Mutis who discovered much local fauna and flora, and lots of acrobats dance up and down an office building, first to some generic stuff then a track called “La Tierra” from Juanes and later some salsa. I consider Juanes, a singer-songwriter equally informed by Caribbean and South American popular music and the best in classic rock, one of the true geniuses of our time.
Central American Games (Panama City, Panama): Just some music here in a competition limited to mainland Central America. The opening features Margarita Henriquez, a recent winner of Latin American Idol, doing a pretty by-the-numbers theme song called “Vamos a ganar.” It’s reprised in the closing with the same acrobatics to go with, with a group called Panama Show Time adding to it some Afro-Caribbean carnival stuff.
FIFA World Cup (South Africa): By far the most elaborate ceremony ever attempted for the football World Cup or for any event held on the African continent, this is a solid Bantu welcome for the world’s second (by some accounts first) most-watched sporting event. At times the vuvuzelas (spinning noisemakers that stole the show that year) made it hard to hear the music, but overall this is high-quality showmanship from the cradle of humanity. A chief in traditional regalia leads joyful dancers to intricate polyrhythms to start us off. The stadium as a whole is shaped to honor the calabash, a general term for large gourds used to cook for village gatherings and therefore a symbol of hospitality and friendship. As veteran pop star Thandiswa Mazwai sings with a large group of performers of all ages, a large beetle crawls around—unlike in many parts of the world, where they are seen as pests, here a particular type of beetle is valued for its role in eliminating aphids. Timothy Moloi, an excellent tenor, does a tribute in the stead of an opera great who had died and therefore couldn’t be there to Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, also sidelined by his great-granddaughter’s death in a car crash the same day. There’s a lot of interesting examples of how Africa’s modern popular music works in native sounds of call-and-response, the British import of close harmony singing, and the music of the African diaspora in the Americas, all of which blend together to create a vibrant, syncretic modern pop scene. TKZee perform a lively example of kwaito, South Africa’s answer to hip-hop, while Hip Hop Pantsula is more in the American-influenced Motswako style. Beginning with the image of an overturned tree in Africa whose roots spread to all humanity, the ceremony gives each African country in the tournament a musical place, starting with Algerian raï great Cheb Khaled, Cheb meaning “young man” like “Little” or “Lil’” in Anglophone acts). Dance troupes from Cameroon and the Ivory Coast join with Ghanaian pop group Osibisa and South Africa’s own jazz pioneer Hugh Masekela (of “Grazing in the Grass” fame for you oldies fans). Femi Kuti represents Nigeria with a great example of his blend of West African folk, jazz, and funk called Afrobeat, pioneered by his father Fela, a promoter of social justice and foe of dictators often seen as the continent’s Bob Marley. R. Kelly wraps things up by joining the Soweto gospel choir on his theme “The Sound of a Victory.” The closing ceremony is similarly elaborate, starting with a group of singers and dancers centered on a rapper named Stone who form into a giant trumpet to herald Colombian pop star Shakira in her massive hit done for the occasion, “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa,” a duet with local fusion group Freshlyground. After some highlight reel stuff, some youths combined in a group called Africa United sing a pop tune named “Everywhere You Go.” Perhaps the most “Olympic”-style part of either ceremony for this World Cup ensues with a fantastic performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a name almost synonymous for many Westerners today with the mellow Soweto Sound (that aforementioned combo of British close harmony and African call-and-response) thanks to their wildly successful collaboration with Paul Simon on Graceland. LBM sings a “Weather Song” in a gorgeously rendered projection of a watering hole surrounded by elephant props, after which some performers strike large digital versions of drums and an mbira (the thumb piano that serves as Africa’s answer to the xylophone). Mafikizolo and Abigail Kubeka deliver a jazzy tune called “Tshwane,” and Pantsula closes things out before Mandela gets his triumphant return for the closing match.
Central American and Caribbean Games (Mayaguez, Puerto Rico): Most of the footage I found from the opening ceremony of these games, an all-out celebration of all things Puerto Rican, is poor-quality TV capture, but there are couple musical numbers that are in high fidelity (when you got it, flaunt it). The area’s top pop star Olga Tañón is on hand for the salsa-inflected theme song “Llego la fiesta,” though I actually prefer the Puerto Rican Commonwealth’s anthem as sung by NOTA, the winners of the first season of the Sing-Off and all proud Borinqueños. For a little kitschy set piece stuff, see the wildlife dancing to hometown jazz flautist Néstor Torres. Don’t miss some jellyfish jamming to a duet by conga player Richie Flores and former New York Yankee Bernie Williams, who retired into guitar playing and is actually pretty good. There’s also a tantalizing glimpse of world-class salsero Gilberto Santa Rosa leading national song “Esa es mi patria,” all too short for my taste. Reggaeton-R&B duo Wisin and Yandel are also on hand for the opening ceremony, which almost got cancelled by a waterspout. Chucho Avellanet, a sentimental local favorite, kicks off the closing ceremony with a very over-the-top duet with a Claudia Brinn. The lively José Nogueras does a tribute to the whole region and reggaetonero Tito el Bambino does his thing, but the most notable thing may be the look ahead to Veracruz, Mexico’s turn in 2014. A local mayor not only gives us a look at the death-defying Papantla Flyers, a kind of spinning bungee-jump practiced for centuries in Veracruz to a persistent pipe drone, but also answers the question of what the area’s best-known song, “La Bamba” (Ritchie Valens’s parents were from Veracruz) is really supposed to sound like with a full harp and guitar combo.
Summer Youth Olympics (Singapore): Please, somebody post this in full. Some bits are up, but what isn’t present from the inaugural youth companion to the Olympics no doubt detracts from the narrative strength of the overall presentation. The pearl of Malaya brings its talented young performers and its lively multicultural atmosphere to bear on this ceremony, starting with a “Selamat Datang” (“Welcome”) from the Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities, along with the different mélange like Eurasian and Peranakan (Malay-Chinese) that have populated this town over the year. “Origins” is kind of cool, with a dance medley (captured in rehearsal since the live version is only there cut up) spreading from the 1940s to the present day. The national anthem has a warm, quasi-Mediterranean feel in its group rendition. One of the highlights is an intersection between combat sports and video games called “Monster,” where a young boxer defeats a metaphorical digital creature to a girl group’s version of Bonnie Tyler’s “Hero” in the ultimate psychological boss battle. The theme, “Across the Finish Line,” has a decent R&B groove to it, before we return to more daredevilry with “Playing with Fire,” a segment with plenty of just that along with nods to lucky creatures like the dragon and the carp. “Bud” focuses on the rejuvenation of life, with the song “A New Story” as the backdrop. That song is better done, as is the national anthem, at the closing than at the opening. Both ceremonies are a bit more informal, in keeping with their orientation toward youth culture, than the conventional “senior” Olympics’.
FIBA World Basketball Champs (Turkey): As far as YouTube demonstrates, this is the first time the Féderation International de Basketball (FIBA) has actually put together entertainment in any sense we would recognize for its quadrennial worldwide tourney. Cirque de Soleil’s main show is not about Turkey but about basketball, and as inventive as it is it’s not quite the jaw-dropper we know Cirque can do. Also, check out Fire of Anatolia's take on the Trojan horse, a mythical episode set on Turkish soil.
Commonwealth Games (Delhi, India): Sino-Indian rivalry ain’t no joke, and it was inevitable that after Beijing the pressure was on for India to deliver something spectacular for the British Commonwealth’s premier sporting event. Thanks to a central tunnel and a giant projection balloon, the spruced-up Nehru Stadium plays host to something than more than fits the bill. I highly recommend the BBC’s commentary for anyone looking for more background on this, hence my using their telecast. In an answer to China’s united drummers often if perhaps unfairly criticized as presenting a monolithic façade, India gives us a panorama of different rhythms from every corner of what is without a doubt the most diverse nation on Earth, all while giant versions of local puppets sway. Hariharan accompanies a children’s welcome celebrating icons like the Namaste and the art of mehndi (henna tattoos). After the Parade of Nations and officials and players’ oaths, another atmospheric scene fetes the guru-student dynamic at the heart of India’s learning traditions in dance numbers around a version of the Bodhi tree, followed by a salute to yoga and a pageant unfolding the colorful splendor of life in India’s bustling cities. After some sand art of the Mahatma, we get some more dazzling dances interpreting national symbols and history before the arrival of overall musical director and composer A.R. Rahman, the man of the hour fresh off his 2009 Oscar sweep for the score of Slumdog Millionaire. A prodigy who knows how to put just the right level of Western propulsion for crossover purposes into the subtle, slowly evolving curves of the north’s native ragas, Rahman does a very rock-like theme song (“Jiyo Utho Bado Jeeto”) before launching into his Slumdog hit, “Jai Ho.” The closing ceremony plays up the sporting angle to begin with in demonstrations of local martial arts, then some marching bands lead us into an explosion of colored powder in the tradition of the festival of Holi. After a massive light show, a panoply of artists take us out with a half-hour concert blessed with tons of top-flight Bollywood dancers. India’s popular music scene has long been intertwined with its cinema, to the point where music made for “pure listening” is an increasingly common exception and not quite the rule, and the singers run the gamut from the traditional playback of Sukwinder Singh to the modern fusion of Sunidhi Chauhan.
Asian Games (Guangzhou, China): How can you top Doha and Beijing? Well, Guangzhou doesn’t. With a bar that high, though, that doesn’t mean China’s southern port delivers an unpleasant or boring ceremony, just not as groundbreaking once you get past the novelty of the eight huge projection screens used throughout. The focus on water of Doha is pretty regularly imitated, including massive water ballets and a climactic scene with a ship tossed at sea, but there’s also gorgeous floral imagery presented as a replica of the ancient style of painting projected on the screens. Lang Lang and actress Zhang Ziyi do a lovely song called “Light” while massive synchronized swimming displays channel Busby Berkeley, then some jet skis rumble in as they always do when you’re trying to have a relaxing moment at the beach. After a reminder to plant stuff on your polluted windowsill, we get an effort to include all Asia as is customary for the ceremony and a syrupy pop song (“Sunshine Again”) to close out the artistic stuff from, among other performers, Joey Yung from the East Asian Games the previous year. Song Zuying, who performs at the very end in front of a very organic cauldron, has one of the standout voices of the night, miles better than Zhang’s. Come closing time, China gives different countries their own little number in a track cheekily titled “Leave Your Song Here,” including China, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Mongolia (the throat singing is strong with this one). The theme “Sunshine Again” is reprised by the pan-regional pop stars from the opening, and we get a couple of songs to finish up, but the best musical performance is the preview to Incheon’s 2014 hosting. Rain, as the black-dressed guy ushering in Korea’s upcoming hosting bid is called, is a phenomenal talent who entertains me more than a lot of more prefab K-Pop sensations, since like PSY he really does put together a lot of his own routines and his voice is incredible. Comparisons to Michael Jackson, which I saw in another video from this performance, are understandable.
Asian Beach Games (Muscat, Oman): It’s a little derivative of Sydney and the script can get quite overwrought, but Croatian techno DJ Zvonimir Dusper’s ceremony for the Asian Beach Games in the Emirate of Oman’s capital is a charming if understated slice of modern ceremony craft. Dusper did his research and captures the unique flavor of Arab music on the fringes of the Arabian Sea. Vasco da Gama’s navigator Ahmad ibn Majid is celebrated as a great fifteenth-century navigator of the Indian Ocean, and off-brand Nikki Webster is adorable in set pieces celebrating the elements and sacred animals of the area like the turtle, the goat (tahr), and the houbara bustard.
Handball World Champs (Sweden): Just some generic sports ballet from a show in Gothenburg to debut the world championships of continental Europe’s answer to basketball, handball.
Winter Universiade (Erzurum, Turkey): Nestled in the northeastern corner of Turkey, Erzurum hosts the world’s winter university games in a ceremony handled by Turkey’s answer to Lord of the Dance, a troupe called Fire of Anatolia (they even are dubbed in some videos as “Sultans of the Dance” and are run by Mustafa Erdoğan, no relation of current Prime Minister Reccep Erdoğan). There’s not a lot of linearity here, just vignettes illuminating different facets of Turkish culture. With both the opening and closing ceremonies, it helps to just get lost in the pageantry rather than trying to look for any uniting thread. As is often the case at Universiade ceremonies, there’s a central dais everything revolves around. Snow, volcanoes, and javelin-throwers get their shout-out, as do the many Caucasian groups of the area around Erzurum, the “gateway” to the Caucasus. Later, the Black Sea fishermen get their own tribute, and the most beautiful scene of the evening transpires in a Sama (dervish ceremony) narrated by the poetry of the great Sufi sage Rumi above a lovely floor projection of tulips. The latter is my favorite of the several versions I’ve seen in Turkish-hosted ceremonies. Fire of Anatolia come back for the closing ceremony, which includes an inventive take on the flood myth many archaeologists date to the flooding of the Black Sea by Mediterranean waters thousands of years ago (Mount Ararat is said to be located just over the Armenian border). A “parade of civilizations” is actually just a parade of horsemen alluding to Hittites, Assyrians, Greeks, Byzantines, Seljuks, Mongols, and Ottomans who settled the land over the years, a prelude to a virtuoso dance performance filling the stage. “Sari Gelin,” a timeless regional song of unrequited love, gets its own heartfelt rendition, before the dances continue. Kiraç does a little sample of Turkish rock to close us out.
Asian Winter Games (Almaty/Astana, Kazakhstan): Let’s get this out of the way: if hosting for events like these was based on democracy and human rights, the post-Soviet dictatorship of Kazakhstan would not even be in consideration. However, when it comes to cultural importance, the mysterious land from whence Indo-European and Turkic peoples fanned out into Eurasia and reshaped history is an ideal location for a truly magical opening ceremony. This rugged land of deserts and steppes on the eastern shores of the Caspian has always had a reputation as a place where hardy people live, a place where traditions thousands of years old persist, a place where the Silk Road transferred the trappings of civilization to and fro without ever compromising the wild heart of the land. The opening ceremony, put together by a gentleman named Alexey Sechenov, is really a “just go with it” thing, and while some cultural guidance might help, the rituals are so new to many world audiences that it’s intriguing to float through and just see each new wonder as it comes. A quick dance number starts things off, but it’s after the Parade where we get what you came for. The ceremony is ordered like a grand book of ancient wisdom or a reading of the ever-changing Kazakh epic Manas (some versions run tens of thousands of lines), alternating astonishing on-location shoots of village life in the deserts of Kazakhstan scored by the haunting lute music of the region with symbolic set pieces revolving around colorful folk dance. Here the great milestones of humanity in a nomadic land are explained: man discovers the horse, the human race is birthed in an egg (there’s that egg story again), people figure out the joys of the great Central Asian mare’s milk drink kumys, the wheel and art emerge, life is thinned out by a Noah-style flood, and marriage and literacy enthrone civilization in the modern age. This is a literal summary of what is shown: the true beauty of this ceremony is in the lyrical drama of the stage pieces, full of authentic costumes and occasionally flecked with first-class operatic performers singing songs specially composed for the occasion. Pan-European pop star Lara Fabian delivers the atmospheric theme song, “Always.” Korean singer Sumi Jo’s “Angels Pass Away” has a similar elegance to “Always,” in keeping with what is really more or less an extended opera.
Cricket World Cup (Bangladesh/India/Sri Lanka): If you wanted more after 2010’s Commonwealth Games in India, plus a little insight into its neighbors Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, feast your eyes and ears on this opening ceremony for the International Cricket Council’s annual global competition in the Commonwealth’s most universally characteristic spot, cricket. Wildly popular throughout the Indian subcontinent, this relative of baseball (both likely originated from a common ancestor called rounders) is the context for a glorious cultural celebration here hosted in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s anthem is one of the most “local-sounding” national tunes in a world where most anthem composers simply wrote a march and called it a day, and the lyric’s by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. A lively song, “Come Play with Us,” is delivered by a bevy of pop stars at the start, and after the officials’ speeches we get a game of suspended cricket which winds up looking an awful lot like Quidditch as you’d expect. Each country gets its section, starting with India. Practically every state of India gets its own representative dance, and I’ll let the excellent narrators from Fox Sports 2 be your guides. Sri Lanka brings in a hip-hop duo called Bathiya and Santhush to introduce some colorful Sinhalese culture (a lady doing a Venus-on-the-half-shell thing and the lion dancers are highlights). Bangladesh’s specialty is charismatic folk divas like Sabina Yasmin, Runa Laila, and Montaz Begum, who perform some of their greatest hits for a global audience here. Dancers with parasols sashay to a pounding beat from the barrel drums, then a warm number pays tribute to the fight for Bengali language rights. A beautiful parade ends the Bangladeshi section, then Bryan Adams shows up for some reason. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, a group well-known for bringing electronic dance sounds into Bollywood soundtracks, perform the final theme song.
Summer Special Olympics (Athens, Greece): Seven years after hosting the Summer Olympic Games, Athens gets to squeeze in some more trademark Hellenic revelry with the Special Olympics World Games. Some brief musical sequences start the opening ceremony off in daylight, but it’s nightfall when the quality showmanship comes in. There’s an extended pageant based on the Odyssey and a giant golden Pegasus here, but it’s the closing that really shines. While the 2004 closing ceremony focused on pop stars and famous tunes, the 2011 one is hipper with a focus on more do-it-yourself acts. Pop-rock band Onirama do a great set to start, then folk combo Aerika take you to an Athens café and even accompany a dance group, and the father of Greek musical theatre, Stamatis Kraounakis, brings his infectious panache to the tail end of the concert. Alkistis Protopsalti’s final farewell song is a perfect example of entehno, a Greek style heavily influenced by Western classical music.
FIFA Women’s World Cup (Germany): The opening ceremony is as simple as it gets. Just a giant football on a river, some pop singing, and later a decent version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The closing ceremony is a sampling of America’s Got Talent contender Alexis Jordan’s “Happiness,” one of several singles she’s been recording in Europe since gaining prominence on the first season of the show back in 2006.
Copa America (Argentina): Inca imagery and the four elements figure heavily in this ambitious ceremony for the top football competition of South America, as does a giant half-submerged soccer ball surrounded by rays like the Sun of the Argentine flag. Diego Torres duets with someone whose name I can’t quite pick out on the theme, “Creo en América” (“I believe in America,” the continent, not the U.S.).
Aquatics World Champs (Shanghai, China): This is the most elaborate opening ceremony yet for the global water sports championship. “An Ode to Water” celebrates the wildlife of the Pacific seas and the philosophical importance of water in ancient Chinese thought, and the set decoration is as gorgeous and steeped in artistic traditions of the Middle Kingdom as you’d expect. “The Magic of Waves” focuses more prosaically on swimming talent, and while that’s more conventional water ballet, the climactic song “Shining Track” has a nice ‘90s R&B groove to it, to the point where the more sentimental song at the end kind of pales in comparison. The closing ceremony’s numbers aren’t as inventive or catchy, though there is a touch of madcap humor in the colorful waves of sea creatures dancing against a backdrop that reminded me of SpongeBob Squarepants or the video game series Kirby. Anyhoo, brace yourself for some random step-dancing and mawkish opera-pop, and the final song isn’t much to write home about. Still, this biennial competition is now a world-class venue for aquatic spectacle, so we’ll likely be seeing more in the future.
European Youth Summer Olympic Festival (Trabzon, Turkey): This is by far the most complete European Olympic Festival opening ceremony I’ve found, one of that whole clutch of events Turkey has hosted in recent years. The heavy focus on dance numbers leaves you with a similar flavor to the Universiade the same year in Erzurum, which actually isn’t that far away. The opening number is a bit more techno than Erzurum’s, but otherwise a lot’s familiar here. See the fire ceremony, see the ancient sultan parade around giant carpets, see Fire of Anatolia do what they always do. There’s a neat pop singer at the end, not sure the name. I got you a little dessert from the closing ceremony, Turkish Delight I guess (and…I’ll show myself out:). It’s some dancing with both the violin called the rebec and the distinctive ancestral clarinet called the shawm. Hungry for more? We got the closing for you as well.
FIFA U-20 World Cup (Colombia): Another world-class spectacle from Colombia, this time for the youth soccer world tourney. This one, entitled “Colombia, un nuevo amanecer” (“Colombia, A New Dawn”), covers each region of the nation in turn and is the work of Rossana Lignarolo and the local carnival schools in Barranquilla, where the tournament opens. The Amazon is saluted with a celebration of nature and the pipes of Daniela Barrios, the harp-accompanied dance of joropo represents the Orinoco valley, people wave around fish and dance the chirimía for the Pacific, and the late Joe Arroyo is feted before singers like Maía, Checo Acosta, and Juan Piña illuminate the living heart of Caribbean Colombia’s música tropical. Vallenato singer Jorge Celedón delivers the theme song (“Nuestra Fiesta,” “Our Party” of course) in the recorded version here for copyright reasons. Overall, Colombia is an ideal nation for ceremonies illustrating Latin America because it combines all the cultural types of the region, from African-influenced coastal carnivals to rainforest jungles to the Andes Mountains to horse-driven plains cultures. A wondrous circus directed by Pedro Salazar graces the closing ceremony, telling the great love story of the Sun and Moon that the site Bogota’s local Muisca tribes use to explain eclipses. Hip-hop group ChocQuibTown have a really exciting fusion going on later on in the show.
Summer Universiade (Shenzhen, China): Those looking for what Beijing 2008 would have been like with the whimsy and informality of London 2012, look no further. A large installation performance based on the abacus precedes the Parade of Nations, but the “meat” of the cultural content is a bunch of mostly foreign students doing a silly flash mob dance with the green smiley-face mascot. A violinist and a pianist duet with the violinist on an inclined platform that looks like a shard of glass, a very metaphorical segment called “Dancing with the Book” features a bunch of gymnasts and cartoons like those seen at the Shanghai swimming championship, and a bicycle relay enforces the environmentally conscious theme that is the alleged reason for the replacement of fireworks with LEDs. The songs are rather forgettable, one of them named, I kid you not, “Fabulous in Their Own Way,” and overall the event is a good example of what happens when one consciously tries to reject the Sydney model and be hip at the same time. An over-the-top song-and-dance show starts out the closing ceremony, beginning with warmed-over pop and seguing bizarrely into a local school band’s cheesy take on “Tequila” and then into an Irish-tap-Chinese step-dance off. Things get a bit more local with some wushu, Chinese acrobatics, and Chinese opera in the middle act, and one song, the syrupy “We Are Friends,” closes things off. I include these ceremonies partly in the interest of completism, but also to show that the difference between Beijing 2008 and London 2012 isn’t entirely a matter of strict cultural differences where one country 100% appreciates the individual and one 100% appreciates the group more so much as a particular choice by the organizers for each one.
Athletics World Champs (Daegu, Korea): For their turn at the world’s biggest track meet, Korea starts off a bit more traditional with old medieval dances. Interestingly, it’s Spanish synth-pop group Mecano whose song, “Hijo de la luna,” is featured in the biggest production number. Some pop stars perform with a giant balloon release too, as is their wont. Anyway, the closing ceremony has Korean boy band JYJ, for whom the fangirls came out in droves once they heard they’d be the act.
Pacific Games (Nouméa, New Caledonia): The closing ceremony for this pan-Oceanian celebration in the capital of France’s most high-profile remaining territory there is up in full, but the audio was blocked for copyright, and most of the opening is only summarized in a quick news brief. I do have a performance by a home-grown pop star from this Melanesian land, Tyssia, who sings the game theme “Pacifique Attitude” while circumnavigating the stage on a Segway.
Rugby World Cup (New Zealand): Our most recent New Zealand ceremony, here for the global competition in the formerly amateur-dominated sport of rugby union (from which American football originates), does the most elaborate version yet of what you’d expect for Kiwiland. All the boxes are checked, including the great sea migrations, the Maori haka, and the sport itself. There is a unique touch this time with a gospel choir (missionaries turned the Pacific region hardcore evangelical) accompanying some stunts during the fireworks show.
Pan-American Games (Guadalajara, Mexico): ¡Olé, muchachos! In the midst of controversies over whether bloody drug cartel wars in the country’s north would threaten security, the opening and closing fiestas for the 2011 Pan-American Games went off without a hitch. Scott Givens and the team at Five Currents have mastered a new style at Salt Lake 2002 and Rio 2007 that captures the joie de vivre and sense of fun of the host country without necessarily clobbering audiences over the head with astounding spectacles like David Atkins. The approach became popular enough to hit the Summer Olympics in 2012, and it seems particularly well-suited to the convivial warmth of Latin American nations as was proven in Brazil four years prior to this Mexican celebration. While ranchera king Vicente Fernandez’s star turn in the intro in full charro regalia was criticized by some middle-class urban Mexicans as too stuck in old stereotypes, it’s actually perfect when one considers that Jalisco, where Guadalajara is located, is the home of mariachi and all the colorful dances and brass-harp ensembles associated with it. The ageless Fernandez and the Mariachi Vargas de Tecatitlán are magnificent as he puts us through our paces with first the national anthem, then the spirited “México Lindo” and finally a crescendo with the host city’s eponymous anthem, Pepe Guízar’s “Guadalajara.” A trumpet duet by two soloists leads us into the Parade of Nations, after which cultural portions resume with a performance by one of Latin America’s most prominent rock acts, Mexico’s own Maná. Maná’s easygoing style has earned comparisons to U2 and the Police. A sentimental song with folk singer Eugenia León (“Sigue tus sueños” or “Follow Your Dreams”) and a string section accompany a series of images on the large projection column in the middle celebrating the sports played at the Games while athletes twirl, then after the president’s speeches we turn to Tijuana-based electronica group Nortec and a futuristic meditation on the Americas’ increasing interconnection via computers. After Nortec’s very Daft-Punk-like show, combining northern Mexican instruments like the accordion with electronic effects, the most elaborate set piece begins. While the local ballet dances above projections of famed artworks from Kahlo, Rivera, and the other great painters and muralists of the nation’s twentieth-century cultural renaissance, world-class singers like Lila Downs perform classic boleros such as Agustín Lara’s “Piensa en mí.” As with the Athens 2004 closing, part of the fun is tracking down the songs that became world-wide hits in instrumental or English-language versions, such as “You Belong to My Heart,” “Bésame mucho,” and “Granada.” Some dancers dressed as monarch butterflies float around to the visiting Colombian Juanes, and pretty soon it’s time for the torch-lighting. The cauldron’s pretty typical, but the stadium was apparently built in the same local-color school as the Johannesburg one where the World Cup took place, since it bears a striking resemblance to the ancient Mesoamerican ball courts. Alejandro Fernandez, Vicente’s son, delivers another unusually entertaining theme song (relative to those of many events of this sort), “El mismo sol” (“The Same Sun”), penned by Chilean rock fusionist Gian Marco. The closing has a world-class musical lineup amidst the cultural displays. Ely Guerra, who sings the Mexican anthem the second time around, is a renowned adult alternative singer-songwriter in the tradition of Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant (seriously, check her albums out—they’re good). A gorgeous carnival of pre-Colombian nature motifs follows the Parade and speeches, and then it’s off to the concert. Mexico’s sole representative there, pop-rock group Camila from the capital, are OK, but there’s no Maná. Argentine Diego Torres (see the Copa América in his homeland the same year) shows up for a truly Pan-American ceremony along with Puerto Rican Ricky Martin, who does a heck of a show all in Español. The real highlight for many was the Wailers, the top session musicians of reggae’s golden age who help make up for the lack of a large-scale Jamaica-hosted Games here (why, Jah, why? I’d love to see one). Their contemporary efforts are decent, but we came of course for the Marley covers like “One Love,” “Waiting in Vain,” and “Jammin’,” and they are first-rate. Overall, this was a great preview to what they could do if the Olympics returned to Mexico. ¡Ay, ay, ay, es magnífico!
Southeast Asian Games (Palembang, Indonesia): Indonesia is so diverse it could host a dozen of these, but since Palembang is in Sumatra, I don’t get my big Javanese gamelan-a-palooza (sad face). Indonesia can afford some pretty snazzy theatrics compared to some previous mainland hosts, so we get some killer drums to start things off (if a trope ain’t broke, don’t fix it), and a well-done homage to the medieval Srivijaya kingdom using full-scale ceiling-to-ground projection instead of just dance and processions. Indra Yudhirista’s “The Glory of Srivijaya” takes its time, gradually building Indonesia’s first large-scale state from the beginnings of civilization, starting with the mastery of agriculture and continuing through the rise of seafaring trade and increasingly sophisticated courtly dance. I thought I caught some music from the Doha Asian Games 2006, apt for a fellow Muslim ocean civilization. A mock football game follows the cultural content before Indonesian singer Agnes Monica joins Malaysian Jaclyn Victor and Filipina KC Concepcion on the clichéd theme tune “Together We’ll Shine.” The traditional dance performances are brought back for the closing ceremony, as is composer Erwin Gutawa, a jazz-rock vet who has become something of an impresario in Indonesia’s pop scene. Indeed, the blend of local sensibilities and Western pop and R&B is on display throughout musical performances by local icons like Putri Ayu Silaen, Giring Ganesha, and Afgan Syahreza. “Kita Bisa,” the Games theme, is somewhat catchy, and young performers acquit themselves pretty well in some intriguing numbers. The Laskar Pelangi Ensemble, a group of kids named after a popular novel and film about young boys and their teachers overcoming poverty, does some traditional songs, and a prodigy named Zaneta Naomi does a great cover of Michael Jackson’s “One Day in Your Life” (as arranged by Gutawa). Finally, in case there’s any doubt of Indonesia’s pragmatic approach to Muslim attitudes towards the female body, Agnes Monica’s “Shake It Off” proves it with a sensual, Beyoncé-style delivery that would never fly in many countries inhabited by the Inodonesians’ co-religionists.
Winter Youth Olympics (Innsbruck, Austria): This winter version of the Youth Olympics started in Singapore in 2010 is a perfect example of everything that makes many European ceremonies seem lifeless compared to their equivalents overseas. A weird New Age yodeler and a bunch of teens waltzing do not a cultural program make, and there’s no need to do Christina Aguilera hijinks with a national anthem with a melody by Haydn (for reals). The central gimmick is similar to the texting tripe we’d be subjected to in London that summer, only in this case instead of meeting for a concert the two youth are communicating on instant messaging in painfully stilted scripts about Innsbruck’s record three-peat as an Olympics host (after the big-boy games in 1964 and 1976). In between the Web exchanges, the earlier Games are remembered with the usual archival clips and some godawful cover band and retro dance group butchering songs from and/or referring to the era. The Zwiefacher circle dance is back from 1976 after the parade, though this time they segue to students doing hip-hop routines in modern dress. The theme song, “This Is Our Time,” is sung by a teenybopper star named EMA and is some seriously Hannah Montana junk. I’m well aware that the Games’ youth focus is part of the rationale for this silliness, but it’s still under the Olympic brand and feels anti-climactic for a ceremony.
Africa Cup (Gabon/Equatorial Guinea): A large choir sing both the national anthem of Equatorial Guinea (where the opening ceremony takes place) and a generic song about the continent to kick off Africa’s premier football competition. Afterwards, the real culture comes in as traditional decorative motifs and local landscapes and wildlife are projected on a central pylon while dances from Equatorial Guinea’s various groups, such as the mainland Fang and the Bioko island Bubi, are performed. Fang culture also overlaps with neighboring co-host Gabon, whose sculptures are projected later on in the display, though the colonial language there was French instead of Equatorial Guinea’s Spanish. Gaguie the gorilla, the mascot, is given a big reveal near the end. The closing ceremony in Gabon is more traditional as with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, using volunteers to form a giant map of Africa for projections and later showing more waterfalls and gorillas from the nation’s vast rainforests. A laser show features afterwards.
UEFA Euro Cup (Poland/Ukraine): 2 kids symbolizing each host country’s team colors get ready to start a game as women in traditional Polish streamer hats dance around what looks like a giant maypole to fiddle music in the low-key opener. Eventually, the kids kick around a football while the dancers sway to a mix of a techno DJ and a pianist playing Chopin, and typical stuff happens: they form the logo, for instance. Seriously, it’s not at all different from what you’re picturing, the most basic stuff. More dancers form the logo to jazz in the closing ceremony.
Summer Olympics (London, England): Scott Givens’s Five Currents teams up with Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle and electronica music group Underworld to put together an opening ceremony that seems consciously intended to upend conventional wisdom about how these Games’ openings ought to be held. We’ve been reminded continuously since by many observers, especially proud Britons, about how refreshing it was to have less national culture and history, more individuality and celebration of modern life, and a more informal tone, all of which I think is a perfectly fine thing to expect…from a closing ceremony. For those who long for lush, beautiful displays of the nation’s cultural heritage, the lack of interesting takes on, say, Stonehenge, Arthurian legend, or the Elizabethan period (beyond the brief excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is a huge oversight, and there’s something of an imbalance to a ceremony where all of five minutes are devoted to the nation’s entire pre-industrial past. While not exactly unpleasant or boring, there is a certain sense of making a ceremony first and foremost for the locals when elaborate choreography on the Industrial Revolution shared equal time with a tribute to children’s literature and the NHS and a maddeningly long dance to classic and contemporary British pop music to accompany a boy named Frankie’s quest to return a cell phone to a girl named June. Again, the cameos by Daniel Craig, David Beckham, and Rowan Atkinson were fun, and Emeli Sandé’s version of “Abide with Me” in memoriam of those who died in the London bombings seven years earlier is as moving as Paul McCartney’s ceremony-ending “Hey Jude” is rousing, but overall the opening seems less like an amazing showcase of British culture than a politically correct missive to China saying “look how much less we emphasize our traditions in this more modern country.” Of course, an effort to do a more historical ceremony might come off as unintentionally ridiculous in this day and age, but I am sure there are tasteful ways to do it. However, the lack of extravagant Beijing-style stuff may be rather appropriate given the global economic downturn, and I can certainly understand not wanting to make people feel like money was being wasted. The closing ceremony has the same tone as the opening, but here of course it is more in keeping with precedent. In-jokes abound once again to British media like The Italian Job and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and there is a great love letter to London fashion set to a David Bowie score, but as usual with closings, music steals the show. Acts like noisemaking dance group Stomp and DJ Fatboy Slim are an acquired taste, but overall there is a pretty high quality level (it is the UK, after all) as groups like the Who (who closed the ceremony out), the Spice Girls, and Queen reunite their surviving members and greats like the Kinks’ Ray Davies, the Pet Shop Boys, and Annie Lennox stop by to work their magic. Many younger acts appear as well, and while One Direction and Jessie J were already getting a lot of traction before the ceremony, others like Ed Sheeran, Tinie Tempah, and Taio Cruz definitely get a big boost in their international profile with their contributions to the closing ceremony. Perhaps a companion piece, a part one focusing more on the fascinating past of the British Isles, would be in combination with this the perfect British ceremony, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think these two shows are anything less than great at what they try to do. It is superb at conveying modern Britain’s essence, and that’s not easy to do in a few hours.
Bolivarian Beach Games (Lima, Peru): For this Andean beach sports event, the entertainment includes a traditional dance from the great Andean tradition of the St. John’s Day feast, all set to a huayno, the richly chromatic ballad form accompanied by pan-pipes and harp that is arguably the quintessential Peruvian music for many. Some horse-dancing follows, until the horsemen get off horseback to dance the lively, more Spanish-sounding cueca with colorfully dressed women.
Winter Special Olympics (Pyeongchang, Korea): East meets west in the intriguing fusion of Korean and classical music that accompanies this ice ballet performed for the opening ceremony of Pyeongchang’s hosting of the winter version of the Special Olympics World games, a dry run of sorts for the city’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in 2018. The closing pulls out all the stops, starting with a skating duet of local starlet and Olympic champion Yuna Kim and Michelle Kwan on a medley of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and PSY’s irresistible export “Gangnam Style” (props for the latter, which is not easy to ice dance to). EXO, one of earlier guest JYJ’s biggest rivals in the Korean boy band wars, wows and charms, as do the nation’s top girl group, Wonder Girls. Both groups’ sets are the sort of thing that would have been at home on the Western charts during the 1990s and early 2000s golden age of really melodic urban contemporary, and their growing commercial presence on American radio may be helping that style make a comeback in an age of pretty homogenous dance-pop and ringtone rap.
Central American Games (San José, Costa Rica): Under the rubric of “Pura Vida” (“Pure Life”), Costa Rica delivers through some heavy-duty sponsorship an unprecedentedly elaborate ceremony for Central America’s own regional competition. There are some flames of the unplanned variety here, though fortunately nobody was hurt. Overall, it’s hard to see the mistakes, though, and it’s pretty impressive for a country Costa Rica’s size. Humberto Vargas, who has competed at the Western Hemisphere’s answer to Eurovision (the Viña del Mar festival), has a warm voice to deliver the nation’s warm anthem before a female dancer and a horseman do a duet to celebrate the “creation of life.” After the Parade of Nations, folk dancers dance to arrangements of many famed Costa Rican songs performed by an orchestra with the occasional glint of the region’s characteristic instrument, the marimba. Later, acrobats perform amidst copies of the famed stone spheres of mysterious purpose that were left behind by pre-Colombian inhabitants, giving way to a celebration of the manifold wildlife that have helped make Costa Rica perhaps the most popular eco-tourism destination in the Western Hemisphere. Both the latter portions are scored by local avant-garde musical collective Editus. The cauldron-lighting is handled as the eruption of one of the area’s famed volcanoes, then a kid waters a plant to represent some obscure point about Central American unity and local singer-songwriter Debi Nova sings the theme song, “Arriba, Arriba” (“Get Up, Get Up”). The kid with the plant, obviously part of the child performer trope in opening ceremonies, returns to start the closing with his own version of the national anthem next to a tree that is now fully grown after he watered it in the opening. A mountain bike choreography routine to hip-hop starts the closing concert, and musical entertainment includes quality Tico (as Costa Ricans call themselves) band Son de Tikizia doing some swing criollo and Colombian cumbia icon Carlos Vives giving pretty much a whole hour-long concert. The closing ceremony is a full-fledged slice of música tropical, the colorful grab bag of Caribbean music that serves as one of Latin America’s most popular overall genres along with regional favorites and middle-of-the-road Latin pop.
CARIFTA Games (Nassau, Bahamas): This ceremony, set in the colorful archipelago right off Florida where Columbus first landed in the New World, is not by any means a colorful epic like some others I’ve showcased here, but it’s a great little taste of one of the English-speaking Caribbean’s many colorful carnival traditions, the Bahamian junkanoo. Junkanoo music, which accompanies the various dances performed here by students from local schools, is the equivalent here of the steel-pan music and calypso that are performed for contests at the annual end-of-Lent festivals throughout the region. It’s broken through to American pop radio’s consciousness a couple times in history, particularly with the Beginning of the End’s 1971 hit “Funky Nassau” and the Baha Men’s 2000 novelty smash “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (actually a cover of a Trinidadian calypso hit from two years prior).
UEFA Euro U-21 Cup (Israel): Given the current geopolitical situation, it is probably going to be a long time before Israel is given a major global platform to host an event other than the Maccabiah Games (which are pretty much hosted there as a matter of course), a shame since Jewish culture does provide a sterling supply of traditions of welcoming and festivity and a rich history and folklore to draw upon for set pieces. Hence, we make do here with some cheerleaders making figures that eventually include a star of David and a rather generic song called “Always My Number One” by Mizrahi (Arab refugee) Jewish pop star Eyal Golan and diva Meital de Razon. This is just the youth version of the football Euro Cup, but that’s the biggest I could find in terms of events where there’s actually competition among countries bidding to host. Oy vey.
Mediterranean Games (Mersin, Turkey): The last of our big Turkish spectaculars takes place on the Ionian coast at Mersin. Like all of the opening ceremony, that early portion was set up by event company Pera Events, who have YouTube videos showing their work. Everything revolves around a central dais with the Muslim and Turkish symbol of a crescent. A couple legends are told in magnificent style, including that of the Seven Sleepers, early Christian martyrs who were said to survive 180 years in hiding in a cave until they lived to die in a world where their faith had gone from persecuted to the law of the land, and that of the Maiden’s Castle, a cautionary tale of an overprotective king who fails to save his daughter from her foretold fate to die by snakebite by exiling her to a nearby island. Our obligatory dervish dance is handled with aplomb as well. Janissaries go on parade in Ottoman regalia, stylized oxen carry in the amphora for the water ceremony, and of course people dance while innumerable Byzantine and Islamic motifs are projected onto the floor. The big finish includes an interesting sort of jazz-pop interpreter. A salute to the four seasons begins the cultural program of the closing ceremony, but the most spectacular portion is a long scene where people perform the dances of various regional groups like the Turks, Assyrians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians (I wonder who’s missing there…hmm) on a map in their respective parts of Anatolia. The final portion pays tribute to the golden age of Ottoman seafaring with an amazing set piece anchored in the 500th anniversary of the Piri Reis map, one of the first maps to ever depict the new understanding of the world produced by Columbus’s voyages. The map comes alive in animations of the ship’s progress and the various hazards and fanciful monsters depicted on the original.
Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (Incheon, Korea): We know the drill by now. Korean court music starts things off as always in the opening ceremony, and we get a bit of modern dance to spice things up as well as a classical ballet surrounded by impressive projections of Korean landscapes. A girl group that isn’t as good as Wonder Girls performs after the Parade of Nations and speeches, and a boy band that is nothing like JYJ or EXO appears later. Both the Korean groups aren’t as entertaining as the past K-pop musical guests at recent Korean ceremonies, and an Indian singer is the highlight of the evening. A pop soloist does one of those warm, sentimental songs that are par for the course in Asian ceremonies during a retrospective for the closing. The off-key pop band appearing later on is pretty embarrassing, though some pretty good rock acts end things. Overall, this is clearly meant as a trial run for the 2014 Asian Games in the same city, in case the fact that it’s included under a channel called “Incheon Asian Games 2014” didn’t make that crystal-clear.
Summer Universiade (Kazan, Russia): If you think you know Russia after the Sochi boondoggle and its ceremonies full of glorification of the imperial and Soviet past and tacky old-fashioned pop culture, or if you are just curious about the “other Russia” besides the old Slavic west commemorated there, you need to watch this ceremony. Seriously, for the good of the world’s geopolitical future, it is imperative to understand that there is a bright side to the youth culture of Russia beyond the crotchety irredentism and reactionary impulses that dominate the adult establishment, and the Universiade is the perfect venue to display it, but I know many Americans don’t even know it’s there and therefore this playlist is the perfect avenue. Producer Alexey Sechenov (who also was at the helm of the Almaty Asian Winter Games in 2011, and musical director Igor Krutoy, himself a kind of Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest figure in Russian pop music but with songwriting talent to boot, put together an opening and a closing full of vibrancy, optimism, and yes, fun, that is every bit the equal of London 2012, and it will surprise many in the West and pleasantly so. The opening ceremony starts off with a section that intercuts between footage of a helicopter tour of the old Golden Horde capital hosting the Universiade and an exquisite procession around the central track full of sumptuous costumes and floats and ancient dances. As each float demonstrates everything from the Slavic and Uralic peoples of the west to the Turkic and Siberian groups in the Russian east, you begin to see proof in action of the Bering Strait hypothesis as the dances, Krutoy’s well-researched background music, and decorative arts shift imperceptibly eastward toward motifs familiar among connoisseurs of Native American culture. A children’s choir and classically trained adult vocalists do a version of the Russian anthem that blows the Sochi one out of the water. The extensive dance performances showcasing Tatar heritage harken back a bit to Almaty 2011, naturally since the Kazakhs and Tatars are closely related Turkic ethnicities. This is followed by performances celebrating the Russian love of nature, folktales, and the sciences, sprinkled with magnificent subtitled presentations putting Russia’s long cultural and political history in a modern, young context. Krutoy wrote a full set of songs to be sung by golden voices from the Kazan region at different points throughout the opening, and the presentation equals if not surpasses that of actual classical favorites during the Sochi opening. In one interesting contrast in light of the LGBT rights laws harming the country’s image at the moment, we are told in the segment on Russian culture that people are raised with a very rigid sense of morality in their folklore; next, though, the kids who share messages with the world in a later montage include one young lady who says “Dividing people into normal and abnormal is the height of stupidity, “ then a butch-looking woman with purple hair saying “I’m human and you’re human although we’re very different,” shortly before a segue to an actor playing the decidedly non-homophobic Pushkin. Call it a coincidence, but the effect, along with the very recognizably cosmopolitan and open-minded greetings from the other students featured on the montage, is a pretty strong if subtle rebuke to some of the policies of the host country’s government. Russian astronauts onboard the ISS greet the athletes too, and if that doesn’t balance out hearing out Putin’s bloviating later on, I don’t know what does. The onion dome cauldron is pretty, too. Anyway, the closing ceremony answers the question you might have had at Sochi as to “Where are all the rock acts?” Krutoy pulls his industry strings and gets together some real hip acts for this show, and though you’re obviously not going to get Pussy Riot performing there, they’re definitely not all stale dance-pop acts like t.a.t.u. A hip-hop Nutcracker (can this get any more awesome sauce?) begins the show and some pop stars join together after the athlete parade for a cover of fun.’s “We Are Young” that sure beats the Sochi cops’ version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” at the Olympics. Garik Sukachov, a funky Lou Reed type who soldiered on through the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years, is the first performer and gets in before the parade. After the “We Are Young” quartet, you get an earful of Moldovan gypsy punk band Zdob și Zdub, controversially racy (by Russian media standards) dance-pop trio Serebro, alt-rock legends Bi-2 (originally from Minsk, they spent time in aliyah in Israel before returning in the 1990s to popular acclaim; kind of a Muse sound), Rostov-on-Don hip-hop group Kasta (here featuring Ukrainian singer Yolka), weird, Bowie-esque alternative band Mumiy Troll, R&B-pop act Guru Groove Foundation (who have a bit of a retro sound a la Amy Winehouse), and Eurovision contender Dina Garipova. As if to put an exclamation point on the heterodoxy (so to speak) of these ultra-modern yet highly authentic Games, a Volga Tatar singer-songwriter named Zemfira, a widely rumored lesbian with a splendid voice along the lines of Sarah McLachlan’s, closes the ceremony. This is not your dad’s Russia, and it’s amazing to behold.
European Youth Summer Olympic Festival (Utrecht, Netherlands): One of our only two clips of substance from the opening ceremony showcases the Netherlands’ lovely if brief anthem, one of the world’s oldest. The Wilhelmuslied, named after national founding father William of Orange, dates back to the struggle for Dutch independence in the sixteenth century. Ben Saunders, a tatted-up winner of The Voice of Holland (no relation to America’s The Voice), duets with fellow winner Fabienne Bergmans. The other is similarly musical, from rapper Gers Pardoel.
Aquatics World Champs (Barcelona, Spain): The opening ceremony is not really about Spain at all. Cirque du Soleil grad Hansel Cereza puts on a show about water through and through, set up through the idea of a boy in the future talking to his grandfather about the demise of fresh water. After bringing home this heavy environmental message, the show moves on to more traditional water ballets, including a death-defying human tower or castell in the water. An aquatic Snow Lake, a jet-ski show to the Sabre Dance, and a candlelit Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto look ahead to Kazan, and then everything ends with a long drum circle as the giant water droplet mascot dances.
World Games (Cali, Colombia): A parkour team begins our latest spectacle in Colombia, the opening ceremony of the World Games, courtesy of Anamarta de Pizarra who pulled off the Under-20 World Cup ceremonies two years prior in the same country. Afro-Latin coastal music, death-defying fire performers from Cali’s native tribes, a salsa orchestra, and performers from acrobats to bodybuilders to dancers (all sports represented here) all enrich the opening, subtitled “Metamorphosis.” The closing is similarly endowed, and starts off with something truly remarkable. A highly talented all-child ensemble (singers, musicians, dancers, all of them) deliver an extended salsa medley, and everything is spot-on save for the lead singer’s annoyingly kid-like voice (unavoidable I suppose). A great Afro-Colombian fusion band from Timbiqui comes next, and Superlitio do a great set of their charismatic Latin rock. If you want your Carlos Vives in more bite-size form than you got at the Central American Games the same year, your chance is at the end.
Athletics World Champs (Kazan, Russia): As you may have guessed right now, like Brazil, China, and South Korea, Russia is on a roll with getting hosting gigs for international sports events right now. This world championship opening is a typically showy presentation, pitched about halfway between the cool of Kazan’s Universiade and the classicism of Sochi. It’s the kind of show where a dude can play Rachmaninov while space-ship props float around and actors pretending to be Mendeleyev and Eisenstein can come out to watch house music takes on Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich, and nobody will bat an eye. It’s kind of a zany way to celebrate the country’s past, and it’s probably more fun for international audiences than Sochi I would guess.
Jeux de la Francophonie (Nice, France): Here, the Francophonie games return to the homeland in an opening ceremony that is above all a concert with some dancers. Perhaps it’s a bit more theatrical than that, since it does focus on French chanson, which is more comparable in its melodramatic storytelling spirit to Broadway musicals than to what we often think of in the Anglo world as popular music. The “Marseillaise” is rendered in full operatic voice, reflecting its origins at the height of the French Revolution. A slam poet of sorts does a reflection on “La famille francophone” (“the Francophone family”), but pretty soon we get an intercontinental gallery of stars performing songs that, perhaps surprisingly for something aimed at a Francophone audience, tend to be pretty familiar to Anglophones. Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” (“Beyond the Sea”), started by actress-singer Patricia Kaas here and later joined by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango (who arguably kick-started disco with his “Soul Makossa” back in 1973), is performed by acts from representatives of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Kaas delivers Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” but then we get deep in the weeds again as Isabelle Boulay (the Americas rep from Quebec) does the decent breakup ballad “Jamais assez loin” (“Never Far Enough”). Dibango gets a word in edgewise, as does a troupe from Vietnam and New Caledonian group SIAPO. Guadaloupe-born rapper Kery James does a great Kanye-style polemic rap with “Banlieusard” (literally “Suburbanite” but better translated to “Denizen of the Ghetto” since Paris follows the pattern of many Latin cities in which the poorer areas are on the outskirts rather than the core as in the Anglo world. A Lebanese singer comes next then a local accordion band, nothing I haven’t seen before. Ivorian pop group Magic System closes us out here on a ceremony that’s entertaining but still pretty sedate. I’m still holding out for a French megaceremony, but I’m not sure it’s in the national taste.
Wrestling World Champs (Budapest, Hungary): At this opening ceremony, the only Hungarian one I’ve found so far, people wave some flags around a bull mascot. Next, however we get a great reenactment of Greco-Roman/Magyar warfare, all interrupted by some priestesses doing a ceremony to begin the peaceful competition. The music has a driving percussiveness which calls to mind Bartok, which would of course be great for a ceremony in Budapest.
Islamic Solidarity Games (Palembang, Indonesia): Opening with some bands and a cheesy pop song, this all-Muslim opening ceremony is a bit more low-key than the Southeast Asian Games one two years prior in the same city. The singer at the end is decent, though she can’t touch Whitney who she covers in what’s probably meant to be some sort of tribute on “One Moment in Time” (originally written for Seoul 1988). The closing ceremony is a bit more ambitious, though it starts with another mix of a cover (in this case of Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor”) and an original. The dance portion, which includes a version of the Hanuman dance from the Ramayana so often reenacted in the Indonesian wayang kulit shadow plays, is fantastic and finally includes something close to a gamelan in the background. Unfortunately, we have to live through an atrocious cover of the Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again” afterwards. There’s a rock band later on, though by then the picture quality goes sideways.
FIFA U-17 World Cup (Dubai, United Arab Emirates): In the opening, people chase around giant footballs, and in the closing, someone rides around in a giant ball while a big cluster of balloons is released and people do rhythmic gymnastics. Really, it’s kind of self-explanatory, and I’m surprised Dubai didn’t put together something fancier what with all the skyscrapers.
Rugby League World Cup (Wales): We don’t get to see any dragons or ironworkers here, nothing all too nationally Welsh, just another example of generic ceremony patter for a single-sport event. There’s a lot of teens doing dances modeled on rugby motions (this is the World Cup for the professional, more working-class rugby league). Cast members of Strictly Come Dancing inexplicably show up, and then the only really Welsh part features a harpist accompanying a spinning dancer. Escala, an e-string quartet from Britain’s Got Talent, perform at the end of the ceremony in Cardiff.
Bolivarian Games (Ciudad Trujillo, Peru): The mainstream Bolivarian Games (as opposed to the Beach Games seen from the previous year) start their opening ceremony, appropriately enough, with a dance performance paying homage to the Incas and other pre-Colombian civilizations of the Andes. Apparently, the ceremony is hosted in Chan Chan, one of the oldest sites of complex settlement in the Americas. The vivid colors of St. John’s Day we saw in Lima are back, complete with the colorful devil masks that feature in the pantomimes of the holiday. The cueca, performed like many South and Central American dances with handkerchiefs, is much more elaborate this time around.
Southeast Asian Games (Naypidaw, Myanmar): As Myanmar slowly democratizes, they have earned the privilege to break the seal of their new capital of Naypidaw with the first ever staging in the country of the Southeast Asian Games. Team Beijing spruces things up for the most incredible staging yet at this regional competition, and I heard Aung San Suu Kyi showed up since she has a horse in the equestrian competition, though they’re not exactly eager to give her a closeup on the broadcast. I like the retro charm of the ‘80s-sounding music from the prologue (by no means necessary for an appreciation of the ceremony proper) and the podium sthat look like vector graphics from Super Nintendo games from the right angle. Anyway, after a shirtless archer fires the flame into its cauldron, we get our first segment, a dazzling introduction to the medieval kingdom of Pagan in which the eleventh-century King Anawrahta pimp-strolls over to his throne, plays some Risk on a tabletop to symbolize his expansionism, and leads a big migration driving some oxen. The great founding king even gets his own epic power-metal theme song (I’m so jelly). There are fantastic effects with shadow puppetry, classical Burmese dancers perform with a giant orchestra marked by the tinny pipes and xylophones characteristic of the area’s musical traditions. A preachy segment about global warming follows the tribute to the member countries, but the special effects and musical performances are miles ahead of the ones at previous SEA games, though there’s still dancing animals and all that jazz. The owl mascots do something uncannily similar to the Hamster Dance (remember that early meme, anyone?), and girls dressed in the many ethnic costumes of the country’s various ethnic groups (not all treated great) do an interminable if catchy number. A long band performance entitled “See You Again” starts the proper ceremony (once again there’s an hour of concert beforehand) for the closing, and we get to see a demonstration of chinlone (a traditional local sport akin to very aggressive hacky sack), some lion dancing and wushu, and the very Burmese-sounding theme song “Colorful Garden.” The music in the last half-hour actually sounds pretty contemporary, and overall the two ceremonies are a pretty upbeat showcase of a nation just beginning to come out of military isolation.
Lusophony Games (Goa, India): Despite its recent vintage, I haven’t found a whole lot of clips from this ceremony. This theme song, however, combining like much of Goa’s music Portuguese lilt and Indian modulations, is a good indicator of the cultural fusion surely on display during them.
Winter Olympics (Sochi, Russia): Though there are some techs from Vancouver, Sochi’s by-the-book opening ceremony is creatively an in-house affair headed by Russian TV impresario Konstantin Ernst. There’s a couple stellar CGI-laden videos (all cut from American broadcasts) to begin the overall show (unless you include lipstick lesbian pop has-beens t.a.t.u. singing “Not Gonna Get Us” or that viral hit with the Sochi police singing “Get Lucky”) and the cultural performance, and the pre-Parade stuff couldn’t be trying harder to ape Sydney with 11-year-old singer-dancer Liza Temnikova in the Nikki Webster role frolicking around a huge stadium suspended from wires to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Post-Parade, we have here a grand tour of Russian history whose content, visually and sonically, is predictable but whose sweep is pleasingly vast. Starting with the domestication of the horse that forever changed Russia’s demographic makeup and continuing through St. Basil’s, Peter the Great’s navy, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and Soviet industrialization, one large-scale tableau after another is crafted with suspended sets and computer projections. Russia’s grand legacy in classical music figures prominently, both in the use of classics like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Second Piano Concerto and Katchaturian’s Sabre Dance and in the employment of the Bolshoi’s finest dancers to illustrate scenes like the ballroom piece from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. My fellow Internauts (as the French say) will recognize the “Trololo” song during the brazen romanticizing of Soviet suburban life near the end of the ceremony, and those with deep historical background probably do feel trolled. Liza reappears at the end, as such child stars often do in these ceremonies, and amazing digital constellations are made near the end of winter athletes, helping dispel any memory for those watching of the missing ring mistake from early on. The closing ceremony, a bit more European-oriented, is also a bit more disjointed, trying to link together different arts as practiced in Russia with the uniting factor of Liza and some other kids watching it all. The pre-Parade teaser lampooning the snowflake blooper from the opening also has a ship floating over the Black Sea with “The White Cliffs of Dover” as the soundtrack, a bit disconcerting considering the goings-on in Ukraine as the closing ceremony was taking place. Some portions of the ceremony proper fall flat, like the 63 pianos playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto along with Denis Matsuev or the tacky library montage meant to illustrate Russian literature, obviously the hardest art to show audiovisually. Other parts, like the Bolshoi’s performance of a scene from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, the aerial fantasia based on Chagall’s dreamlike paintings, and the brief circus montage, do. The extinction of the flame is done in such a manner as to pay homage to Moscow’s Mischa goodbye by surrounding him with two fellow mascots and having the puppet “blow out” the cauldron (through a large pneumatic machine presumably) like a birthday candle. Overall, both ceremonies have many technically impressive moments, but they stand on the shoulders of giants as this playlist shows, and I could have used a bit more humanist whimsy as in Kazan.
South American Games (Santiago, Chile): This time around, agricultural and mining superpower Chile gets the honor of hosting South America’s continental multi-sport extravaganza, the South American Games. This March opening ceremony (it’s early fall in the Southern Hemisphere) starts with the military bands, who Chile no doubt is relieved to have in a purely ceremonial role today. The cultural portion begins with Lautaro, the great Mapuche (or Auraucana) chief who fiercely resisted colonization long after other civilizations to the north fell to Spanish control. Colonial mixture of peoples and the development of shepherding and sea trade through Valparaiso lead in their turn to the Chilean independence struggle under José Miguel Carrera, a lieutenant of General San Martín. Chile’s geographic diversity, a product of its length, is celebrated in the next segment, ranging from Antarctic wastes through foothills of the Andes to northern deserts. Authors like Isabel Allende (whose prose it sounds like is being reflected in the nature segment), Gabriela Mistral, and Pablo Neruda get their due in a segment hailing Chile as a “nation of poets,” and multiple uses of Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la vida” highlight her role in the rise of the protest movement of nueva canción as a vital element of resistance during the rule of brutal dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. By excerpting a different song by Víctor Jara, a famed martyr of the 1973 coup by Pinochet, the ceremony finds a nifty way to obliquely reference the darker side of its past without breaking with the optimistic tone of the ceremony, much like Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Games did with its tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Américo, a Chilean cumbia singer, is hardly who I’d pick for a quintessentially Chilean artist to appear at the ceremony, but appear he does. The much more national folk-rock ensemble Los Jaivas closes things out in style. Speaking of closing, the closing ceremony is truth be told not as much to write home about. A local folk dance group dances the cueca while nature scenes from throughout the country flash on screen, and near the end another dance is done to “Gracias a la vida,” which is soon reprised by Chilean rapper DJ Méndez (currently based in Sweden), the keynote act for the end here and a real believer in the possibilities of mixing his native land’s sounds with hip-hop sampling.