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The best thing about Olympic ceremonies is the element of surprise.
In 1996, an estimated worldwide audience of 3.5 billion viewers was caught off-guard, momentarily transfixed by the events unfolding inside Olympic Stadium in Atlanta. United States swimming star Janet Evans was carrying the Olympic Flame as she ascended a long, steep ramp. Above her, his face suddenly bathed in light, stood "The Greatest" — 1960 Olympic boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
The crowd's applause grew to a deafening roar as Evans passed the torch to Ali, who held it aloft triumphantly. Visibly shaking from the effects of Parkinson's disease, his unheralded appearance at the Opening Ceremony would become a major highlight of the Atlanta Games.
Shrouded in secrecy and steeped in tradition, the Opening Ceremony, to many spectators, is anticipated almost as keenly as the athletic events. A simple choral tribute at the first Olympic ceremony following the 1896 Athens Games has evolved into a three-hour extravaganza signalling the start of the Sydney 2000 Games. Large-scale events bring large-scale expectations, and they traditionally have been met, if not surpassed, at each successive Games.
The Opening Ceremony is like a bold statement of intent. It's the best opportunity for the host city to showcase its cultural identity and lay out its vision for the Games before an international audience. While intended primarily as entertainment, the perfectly choreographed segments often give heroes their due or draw attention to a social issue. The Hollywood-style glamour cannot mask the underlying theme of tolerance and respect.
Amid the fireworks, laser shows and breathtaking spectacle, it's easy to forget the Opening Ceremony holds many of the Games' most important rituals. There's the arrival of the torch and the lighting of the cauldron, the raising of the Olympic flag and the taking of the oath. There's the parade of athletes, nation by nation, before the cheering crowds. The International Olympic Committee insists on such traditions, and few would dispute the dignified air they lend to the proceedings.
The Closing Ceremony is a different story. With the hard work behind them, competitors relax and enjoy a carnival-like atmosphere. In fact, at every Games since 1956, the parading athletes have broken ranks to march as one united team, strengthening the spirit of friendship and universality.
It also marks the host city's last turn on the global sporting stage and is used to full effect. Tying in wide-ranging aspects of the national identity and hoping to form a cohesive whole, the festivities might feature a song by the latest pop sensation followed by a dance routine from an indigenous group with lineage stretching back 30,000 years.
Between the two extravagant rituals serving as bookends on the Games, dozens of small but significant ceremonies occur. Arrival ceremonies, led by the mayor of the Olympic Village, welcome the athletes to their temporary homes. There, small gifts are exchanged as each country's flag is raised, and the athletes and officials cross cultural boundaries to mingle freely. Later come the medal ceremonies, the victors standing tearfully on the dais as the world silently awaits the first strains of a national anthem.
During the Closing Ceremony, the Olympic flag is passed to the next host city, to be enshrined in its town hall until the next chapter of Olympic history unfolds.