When we think back to Olympics past, we remember not only athletic feats, but also our favourite moments from the opening ceremonies. The archer shooting a flaming arrow to light the Olympic cauldron in Barcelona, 1992; Muhammad Ali poignantly overcoming the tremors in his hand to do the same in Atlanta, 1996; the Queen greeting James Bond in London, 2012 – these are images that have passed into the public consciousness. But what were opening ceremonies like in the days before they were viewed in millions of households – indeed, at the very beginning of the modern Olympic movement? Going through old newspaper reports from Britain, I found a wonderful if tantalising glimpse of them.


Early Olympic openers were dominated by royalty. The modern Olympics opened in Athens in April 1896, the Greek Royal family and the Russian Grand Duke attending "a Te Deum in the Cathedral". This was followed by the public opener, a grand ceremony attended by a crowd of some 30,000. The London Evening Standard reported that the crowd "manifested the greatest enthusiasm, but observed the most perfect order" as a choir sang an Olympic hymn along with a 200-piece ensemble. All of this took place in the Stadion, the rebuilt structure at the site of ancient Greek sporting events, which was ceremonially handed over by the Greek Crown Prince and the organising committee to the King.

In 1908, the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star described the opening of the fourth modern Olympic Games in Shepherd’s Bush, London. Unsurprisingly for London, it rained in the morning, though things began to clear up by the afternoon. The report went into raptures about the royal box, "an elaborately decorated and prettily furnished structure". It was hung with "rich rugs and carpets, and flowers were lavishly placed at all points where the pillars and posts would have otherwise spoilt the appearance of the structure". The King received a number of delegates from abroad, the national contingents marched past the box, and the games were declared open. The Evening Telegraph and Post of Dundee added that the rain had reduced the crowd to about 15,000 – in itself a considerable number.

Four years later, the fifth Olympiad began in Stockholm, at an impressive stadium which The Scotsman felt made for "a sad contrast with the gaunt structure at Shepherd’s Bush". Swedish royalty arrived in a "cortège … of eleven carriages", announced "by a long fanfare of trumpets and the singing of the National Anthem by the vast concourse, followed by three cheers". There followed a prayer and a psalm, while "[t]he athletes were splendidly marshalled on the green centre of the Stadium in masses of white and blue, bordered by the fluttering of various countries’ standards". It was not uncommon in the early years to begin the then heavily Euro-centric games with a prayer: the Lincolnshire Echo noted that Paris 1924 was inaugurated "with a service at Notre Dame [Cathedral]" with officials and players in attendance.

The Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 opened with a 1200-voice choir, but what caught the fancy of the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer’s correspondent was the "international city" of Amsterdam itself. "A perfect babel of tongues may be heard in the old cobble-stoned streets", (s)he wrote. "Dusky Latins from Southern Europe and the South American countries mingle with flaxen-haired Scandinavians and Finns from the North … All the main streets are decorated and illuminated, and the bridges in [one part of the city] are decked with pylons in the national colours, entwined with greenery, and surmounted by the three white Saint Andrew crosses which are the arms of Amsterdam."

In 1932, the games crossed the Atlantic and the width of a continent, opening in Los Angeles. As with any good American product, size mattered: tickets sold like hot cakes and more than 100,000 spectators were expected for the opener, according to the Nottingham Evening Post. US Vice President Charles Curtis was due to open what were set "to be the greatest and most spectacular Olympic Games since the inception in 1896".

Olympic opening ceremonies are held in open stadia. What happens if it rains – and, unlike in London in 1908, does not stop raining? The answer, at the second post-war Olympics, was that you just braved it. The Helsinki Games (1952), the Evening Express of Aberdeen reported, "were declared open … in a drenching downpour that failed to wash out the colour of the ceremonies or the enthusiasm of an amazing crowd of 70,000 that sat in the vast open Olympic stadium for almost three hours". The stadium, a "great wood and concrete bowl", had turned into "a sea of umbrellas". Everyone stood as the national anthem of Finland was played, and an electrical scoreboard displayed Baron de Coubertin’s motto: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part."

The Olympic Games are many things at once. They are no doubt a show of strength by the nations of the world and a reflection of geopolitical equations, but they are also a celebration of athletic prowess and a chance for participants and spectators alike to experience a whirl of cultures in a festive fortnight. Given the scores of different events, though, they are best remembered as a whole through their opening ceremonies. What will the dominant image from Rio 2016 be?