Fourth-Place Medal

The best and worst Olympic torch lightings of the modern era

Jay Busbee
Fourth-Place Medal

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Muhammad Ali in 1996.

Every Olympics' Opening Ceremony must now be a spectacle beyond earthly belief, glitter and drama and showiness unlike any before it. You can blame Beijing for this, since the 2008 Opening Ceremony remains the most watched television program of all time, but the truth is that as long as we've had Opening Ceremonies, we've had nations wanting to bury good taste in a mountain of extravagance.

The centerpiece, the climactic moment, of any Opening Ceremony is the lighting of the Olympic torch. It's a transcendent, symbolic moment, a flame carried around the world to light the torch that will stand watch over the Games for their duration. And, like any transcendent moment, it's very easy to screw up.

With the Sochi Opening Ceremony fast approaching, let's take a look back at some of the best, and worst, moments in Olympic torch lighting history.

Atlanta 1996
For all the justified criticism leveled at Atlanta by the IOC about excessive commercialism — which sounds awfully quaint now — Atlanta did at least one thing exactly right: having worldwide icon Muhammad Ali as a surprise, and wholly appropriate, choice to light the torch.

 

Barcelona 1992
The arrow fired over the seven-story-high cauldron (at the 4:38 mark below) remains one of the most dramatic in Olympic history. The arrow didn't actually go into the cauldron; you can see it flying past as the flame lights. Organizers decided that the possibility of accidentally sending a flaming arrow ricocheting into the crowd was too great, and thus opted for an overshoot into a sandbox beyond the stadium.

Beijing 2008
Undeniably spectacular, as gymnast Li Ning seemed to leviate and run the circumference of the entire stadium to light the cauldron.

Los Angeles 1984
The first Olympics in the United States in half a century was fraught with politics, but Rafer Johnson's lighting of the torch (and the Olympic rings) at the L.A. Coliseum was a perfect, flawless spectacle.

And now, some of the less notable. 

Berlin 1936
Relentless and terrifying in its efficiency, starting at 4:00, and in what it presaged.

Vancouver 2010
This was a double-fail. First, organizers put Wayne Gretzky in the back of a pickup truck and paraded him through the streets like a small-town homecoming queen. Then, one of the four pillars designed to rise up and light the torch failed to do so, a la Spinal Tap. Ouch.

Seoul 1988
Those looking for metaphor and symbolism in the Opening Ceremony would do well to avoid Seoul's debacle. Doves, a sign of peace, were released to start the ceremony, and flew throughout the stadium. Unfortunately, several decided to alight on the still-unlit cauldron ... and didn't realize until too late (4:30 of the video below) that they could not have chosen a worse spot to hang out.

Sochi has already had its own drama with the Olympic flame, like this moment, when it had to be re-lit with, yes, a cigarette lighter:

 Oh, this is going to be dramatic, one way or another.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter.

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