Olympics opener hits a high note

Beijing organizers release pre-Games tunes

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LONDON -- Imagine the Olympics Games void of music -- the raising of the Olympic flag without the Olympic hymn, the parade of nations in a hushed stadium and synchronized swimming to the sounds of silence.

Music has helped turn the Olympics opening ceremony into one of sport's great occasions, and Beijing organizers have already released pre-Olympics jingles, including the theme song for the 100-day countdown celebration featuring vocals by Hong Kong film hero Jackie Chan.

The musical lineup for the Beijing Games, which start Friday, remains secret, though the Olympics Cultural Festival, from June 23-Sept. 17, will include a performance by British soprano Sarah Brightman.

The founding father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, felt the Games needed to integrate sport and the arts and his zeal led to the creation of competitions in music, sculpture, painting, literature and architecture in 1912.

Winners of the so-called "Pentathlon of the muses" were, like their athletic counterparts, awarded gold, silver and bronze medals.

"He wanted (to include) the arts pretty much from the start and this was all part of his vision," Olympics historian Phillip Barker said. "It was a nice idea to try and make out that everybody wasn't just a muddied oaf."

The competitions suffered, however, because judges deemed many of the entries substandard and refusing to award medals.

Another sticking point was the amateur rule that forbade professionals from participating in the Games, thereby preventing contributions from the artistic elite.

After 1948, the arts competitions were abandoned, and the host cities focused instead on the cultural festival held in the run-up to and throughout the Games.

Music has been especially prominent at the opening and closing ceremonies.

"In the opening ceremonies you have a lot of prescribed music. The Olympic hymn has to be sung ... and the national anthem of the host country," said William Guegold, the author of "100 Years of Olympic Music."

Increasingly though, host cities have integrated top class music acts into these ceremonies. Some of them have provided one of the Games' highlights and given worldwide fame to the artists.

On the occasion of the performance of opera star Montserrat Caballe at the Barcelona 1992 Games, journalist William Livingstone wrote in Stereo Review: "Which champion gets the gold medal? Montserrat Caballe! Again, she demonstrates that she possesses one of the most beautiful voices ever to issue from a human throat."

It was in Barcelona that classical music met pop at the Olympics, marking the progressive move away from high-brow musical performances to crowd-pulling acts.

One of the most enduring memories from Barcelona was the crowds streaming out of the Montjuic stadium late at night accompanied by the haunting theme tune "Barcelona," recorded by Caballe with Queen singer Freddie Mercury.

Four years later in Atlanta, rock 'n' roll took over at the closing ceremony. Athletes poured into the stadium for the mother of all discos with Little Richard pounding out "Good Golly Miss Molly," and Stevie Wonder sang the John Lennon anthem "Imagine."

"The opening ceremonies are more of ritual and the closing ceremonies are more of a going-away party for the athletes, you will see more popular music that the athletes can relate to," Guegold said.

Popular in this instance also means money-making. Recordings of official and unofficial Olympic songs sell like hotcakes and are heavily promoted and distributed throughout host cities.

An official album of about 30 Olympics songs is set to be released for the Beijing Games and retailed at some 3,000 shops in China.

Expectations for the musical lineup at the Beijing Games are high and the opening ceremony may be the most extravagant yet. The 2008 cultural festival will be the biggest so far.

The festival has been held every year since 2003 and included performances by some of China's best musicians and orchestras, film festivals, song competitions, exhibitions as well as some of the major landmarks in Games preparations such as the launch of the mascots.

"This is 2008, this is China," said Ren Xiaolong, deputy division chief at BOCOG's Ceremonies and Culture department. "We have more than a billion people so, I think we can say it will be the biggest Olympic cultural festival ever."