After all the delayings and complications, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have finally started in a solemn and yet quite emotional ceremony. Unlike past editions where the Opening Ceremonies were all over the top showing the grandeur of the host countries, this time the Japanese Olympic Committee opted for a different type of ceremony; a more simple and yet touching one with an important message of unity and hope amidst the global Covid-19 crisis.
Something the ceremony didn’t change was the traditional cauldron lighting which has become a staple of modern Olympic Games and the peak of the Opening ceremonies since Amsterdam, 1928. Tokyo 2020’s cauldron was lit by tennis player Naomi Osaka. In one of the emotional peaks of the event, two nurses run part of the relay with the torch.
For every Olympic Games ceremony, the flame is taken from Olympia in Greece. After a special ceremony, it embarks on a journey to the hosting country through relays that can take months until it reaches its final destination at the traditional cauldron in the stadium, officially announcing the beginning of the Olympics. This ceremony is filled with solemnity; however, there have been times when tradition merges with creativity giving us powerful spectacles that have made the world gasp with amazement and excitement. Here are some of them:
5. Atlanta, 1996
Although these games were highly criticized for their lavishness and extreme use of sponsorships, the torch lighting ceremony surprised the entire world, not because of the technology used for the moment but for the person in charge of lighting the cauldron. As it’s become a tradition since the athlete that takes the Olympic flame to its final destination remained a secret. So you can imagine the surprise when the one and only (also gold medal winner) Muhammad Ali appeared at the platform of the Centennial Olympic Stadium.
4. Tokyo, 1964
Also focusing on the bearer of the Olympic flame were the Tokyo 1964 Games. The chosen one was the then 19-year-old college runner, Yoshinori Sakai. He was born on the very same day the US dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Although he wasn’t an official Olympiad, as the tradition stated, his appearance was a symbol of peace after the devastation of the country, and the promise of a better future. He eventually participated in the 1966 Asian Games and won a gold medal in the 4×400 m relay and a silver in the 400 m events. A very powerful and meaningful moment in Olympic history.
3. Barcelona, 1962
Let’s focus on the panache of the ceremony, with the astonishing moment that the Barcelona Games gave the world. Not only was the entire ceremony a true and beautiful spectacle, but also the lighting of the cauldron is still one of the most iconic ones in the history of the Olympics. Antonio Rebollo, an Olympic Paralympic archer, was selected just a couple of hours before the event to do the honors after demonstrating a unique aim while using fire. Yes, you can imagine how it went. Rebollo lit his arrows with the Olympic flame and, with a precise aim, shot while the audience held their breaths as the flame traveled through the air to light the cauldron. Rebollo is still the only Paralympian to light the Olympic cauldron giving an important message of diversity and inclusivity.
2. Los Angeles, 1984
After the Moscow 1980’s boycott led by the US, the 1984 Games were planned to contrast the USSR’s in the last years of the Cold War. In that fashion, the event even included a pilot landing flying with a propulsor jet and landing on the stadium. But let’s focus on the cauldron. Rafer Johnson was selected to be the last athlete on the relay. He was the very first African-American athlete to carry Team USA’s flag in Rome, 1960 and the very first one to light the cauldron. He ran a bit of the track and climbed some very inclined stairs with such agility that the audience was stupefied. Fun fact: during the last rehearsal, Johnson’s leg cramped at the stairs, so a replacement was appointed in case it happened at the real event. That replacement was Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner.
1. Beijing 2008
Last but not least, our number one in our ranking of the most memorable Olympic cauldron lighting. Considered one of the best opening ceremonies of all time, the Beijing 2008 opening was out of this world. The precision shown by the performers was something that amazed the entire world. The lighting of the cauldron wasn’t the exception. Li Ning, the Olympic gymnast ran the last track to light the cauldron; suddenly he unexpectedly was pulled up with wires flying with the torch and reaching the edges of the stadium where he appeared to be running on the air. He finally reached the top to light the also mesmerizing cauldron in what’s considered one of the most eye-dropping moments in the history of the modern Olympics.
The lighting of the Olympic cauldron has become a symbol of the unity between the ancient and the modern games. The Olympic flame symbolizes the flame that Prometheus stole from the gods to give to humanity to help them grow as a civilization.
Cover photo by IG: @naomiosaka