The opening ceremonies are the crown jewel of every Olympics. They’re that perfect moment where anticipation turns into reality, before the sweat and the tears, where the whole world has its attention focused on one place at one time and the host nation, which has struggled and schemed to bring the world to its doorstep, uses song or dance or awesome pyrotechnic displays to convey to its audience just how great the host country really is.
By now, the fact that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have spent a mind-boggling $51 billion dollars on the 2014 Sochi Olympics is common knowledge. It’s clear to everyone that this year’s Olympics are all about being bigger and better than any other international sport competition in the world… ever. Judging from the rumour mill, the Sochi opening ceremonies will set jaws a-dropping.
According to the Sochi 2014 website, the 22nd Olympiad opening ceremony will be “the most impressive and memorable event of the Olympic Games.” “But, wait,” you say, “can one four-hour display of pomp really outdo four weeks of struggle and triumph from the world’s greatest athletic specimens?” Very possibly. Not only will 3000 artistic performers be taking part in the event, but viewers will watch with awe as six locomotives, the troika from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, Peter the Great, and five sailing ships make their appearance in Fisht Stadium.
As an investment in the country? Maybe not the best allocation of resources. But, since we’ve got a few days to wait for that spectacle, here’s a recap of the five most over-the-top, expensive Olympic ceremonies in history. For those with 20 hours of free time, they’re well worth re-watching.
5 Sydney (2000)
About $20 Million, Or Approximately $83,333 Per Minute
For the first Olympics of the new millennium, Australia aimed to set the bar high. What began quite understatedly with a single man on horseback riding into the stadium soon developed into 120 seated riders performing a dressage of the five Olympic rings. And then the directors really went to work.
As in all opening ceremonies, the performance was a mix of celebrating the spirit of sport and infotaining the world about Australian history and culture. Mostly the latter.
The audience was treated to series of enormous tableaux representing key parts of the Australian identity: an enormous representation of that great wonder of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef, complete with giant floating jelly fish and human coral; an apology for and then tribute to the colonial history that made Australia the country it is, featuring James Cook arriving on a ship made of bicycles with a fake caged rabbit on board, whip cracking, and wood cutting; and, most bizarrely, a homage to the brush fires that frequently ravage Australia, wherein jugglers and fire-breathers swept their way across the stadium.
With a 2000-man marching band, a 3000-member choir and flaming Olympic rings that emerged from a pool and rose into the sky on a waterfall to form the Olympic cauldron, the opening ceremonies that year, much like Australia, were truly grand.
4 Athens (2004)
About $35 Million, Or Approximately $145,833 Per Minute
The theme of the Athens opening ceremony was the blending of the ancient and the modern. On the ancient side, there were mammoth representations of the Greek gods that rose and then sank from a dark pool of water, beautiful columns, a hoplite phalanx, diaphanous gowns, and volunteer performers dressed as statues as far as the eye could see.
On the modern side were lasers, DJ Tiesto spinning the parade of nations, and the sheer logistical magnitude of putting the whole show on. Putting on an event of the size and grandeur of the opening ceremonies is a trial at the best of times, but the world was in awe of some of the things Greece managed to pull off. For the aforementioned pool, Engineers had to design a giant pool with a slip-proof, see-through fiberglass floor that could drain in two minutes. The Greeks also splashed out an amazing lighting and a robotic system that could maneuver the cables holding the large floating set pieces.
As far as impact is concerned, Greece got what it paid for, though people have since speculated that the cost of hosting the 2004 Olympics helped push the country into financial crisis.
3 Vancouver (2010)
About $36 Million, Or Approximately $150,000 Per Minute
Despite the cash splashed out on the 2010 Olympic Opening ceremony, the event was met with lukewarm reviews. People referred to it as “polite,” “dull,” and “well-behaved,” words that are unlikely to be used in reference to Sochi. Some people just can’t be placated with the world’s largest puppet, in the form of a giant bear, and Wayne Gretzky in the back of a red pickup truck.
The memorable moments of the ceremony were truly beautiful. Snowboarder Johnny Lyall jumping through an exploding Olympic ring is an image that sticks with you. But looking back at 2010, one does kind of wonder where all of that money went. Perhaps the cost of living in Vancouver really does make a huge difference.
2 London (2012)
About $75 Million, Or Approximately $312,500 Per Minute
This opening ceremony wasn’t missing a thing… literally. It looked as though they managed to fit two-thousand years of British history in before the parade of nations. Directed by Danny Boyle, these ceremonies had a grittier feel than most, choosing not to gloss over the industrialization of the British countryside, as performers depicted tearing up the pastoral countryside in favour of mines and smokestacks. Between the mind-blowing set changes (did they really remove an entire hillside mid-show?), the flying nannies, the out-of-control pyrotechnics, and the Queen sky-diving into the stadium, it’s safe to consider the $75 million money well spent.
1 Beijing (2008)
About $100 million, Or Approximately $416,667 Per Minute
Everyone knew that the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies were going to be big, though surely nobody expected them to be as gargantuan as they were.. But, boy did we know we were in for something when giant firework foot prints marched their way across the Beijing and into the Bird’s Nest stadium.
A giant light-up LED screen in the centre of the stadium; tiny dancers in red performing on a giant yellow sphere suspended in the air; 897 blocks signifying the Chinese invention of movable type (which turned out to be 897 people running around in giant boxes); the only way to describe the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies is epic.
To this day it stands as the most expensive opening ceremony ever, and it’s easy to see why. Heck, the Chinese government had even originally hired Steven Spielberg to direct it, before he quit in protest of Chinese support of the violence then ongoing in Sudan. Video of the ceremony was selected by the American Film Institute as one of 2008’s Eight Moments of Significance. But who knows, maybe Sochi 2014 will blow it out of the water. The budget certainly allows for it.