How the Olympic Opening Ceremonies Work

What to Expect in the Opening Ceremonies Today

Opening Ceremonies Sochi Winter Games Opening Ceremonies Sochi Winter Games
The Olympic flag must fly for the entire duration of the Olympic Games from the main stadium and in all other venues, according to the official Olympic charter. Sampics/Corbis/Getty Images

Modern opening ceremonies feature several standard components, including the following:

  • The parade of nations
  • A speech delivered by the president of the games' organizing committee
  • A speech delivered by the president of the International Olympic Committee
  • The playing of the Olympic anthem
  • The raising of the Olympic flag
  • The finale of the torch relay
  • The lighting of the cauldron
  • The emblematic releasing of the pigeons
  • The declaration of the Olympic Oath
  • The national anthem of the host nation
  • The artistic program

Perhaps the most memorable part of any opening ceremony is its artistic program. Usually the details of the performance are kept top secret until it begins. This segment of the ceremony is the host city's chance to show off its culture and history on the global stage. Take the unforgettable opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing: 91,000 people packed the stadium nicknamed the Bird's Nest and watched as 5,000 years of Chinese history played out before their eyes.

Among the many components of the show, 2,008 drummers beat out a mesmerizing tune in perfect synchronization on percussive instruments constructed in an ancient fashion. Giant blocks representing printing blocks rose from the stadium floor and assembled into a model of the Great Wall of China. Oarsmen armed with giant paddles rowed their way up the Silk Road. All in all, some 14,000 participants performed in the ceremony, some who had been practicing and perfecting their performance for two entire years [source: Henderson].

But back to the rest of the ceremony. During the parade of nations, between the Greeks and the athletes from the host country, the rest of the delegations enter in alphabetical order — based on the language of the host country. Each delegation is fronted by both a board with the country's name and its flag. It is a great honor for an athlete to be chosen to carry his or her country's flag.

Another staple is the arrival of the torch at the stadium to light the cauldron. Pigeons — symbolizing peace — are released following that. (They used to be set free before the cauldron was lit, but several unfortunate avians got toasted one year, hence the swap.) An athlete and an official also take the Olympic Oath. The purpose of this is to pledge adherence to the rules of the games and to promise standards of good sportsmanship. One athlete from the nation hosting the games recites the pledge on behalf of all the athletes competing in that Olympiad.

Once all these components of the opening ceremony occur, the host country's head of state proclaims the games open, and it's the athletes' turn to shine.