The opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics took place in the evening on Friday 19 July in the Centennial Olympic Stadium, Atlanta, United States. As mandated by the Olympic Charter, the proceedings combined the formal and ceremonial opening of this international sporting event, including welcoming speeches, hoisting of the flags and the parade of athletes, with an artistic spectacle to showcase the host nation’s culture and history. The ceremony features Award-winning and Grammy Award-time nominated film composer, John Williams, French Canadian singer Celine Dion and American singer Gladys Knight.
The ceremony began with a countdown at the screen coming from 60 to 1. At the length of 26, symbolizing as Games of the XXVI Olympiad, all the previous games are seen including Atlanta with the fireworks.
A flashback from Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in August 1992 which showed the then president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch asking the athletes to compete in Atlanta in 1996.
The segment began with a colorful long papers of the Olympic symbol, the papers fell into the stadium. Spirits rose in the northwest corner of the stadium, each representing one of the colors in the Olympic rings. They called the tribes of the world which after mixed percussion formed the Olympic rings while the youth of Atlanta formed the number 100 and the shape of a dove. Famed film composer John Williams featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra composed the official overture for the 1996 Olympics, Summon the Heroes, his second overture for an Olympic games (the first being Olympic Fanfare and Theme written for the 1984 Summer Olympics). The tribes formed a sun filled with long colored papers. A presentation of the United States Colors arrives center of the stadium. The colors are joined by Billy Paine President of the Atlanta OOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch and President Bill Clinton. The American national anthem is sung by the Centennial Olympic choir and the American flag raised. The United States Air Force Thunderbirds squadron do a "fly by" over the stadium.
There was also a showcase called "Welcome To The World", which featured cheerleaders, chromed Chevrolet pick-up trucks with spotlights in the beds, marching bands, and steppers, showcasing the American youth and college sporting culture, including the wave commonly seen in sporting events around the world created in the United States. The segment ends with a fireworks display.
Gladys Knight sang "Georgia on My Mind", Georgia's official state song, at the opening ceremony.
A showcase entitled "Summertime: The Beauty of the South" focused on Atlanta and the Old South with a placement on its beauty, spirit, music, history, culture, and rebirth after the American Civil War. During the segment, James Earl Jones quotes famous American writers William Faulkner and Thomas Rorke. The segment began with two persons each dressed in large butterfly type wingspans. One butterfly as the Moon and the other as the Sun on opposite ends of the stadium. They meet in the center and create the "American Southern Spirit", she is a female operatic singer dressed all in white with large butterfly wingspans. She appears after the sun and the moon meet. The southern spirit butterfly along with other performers dressed as butterflies and fireflies danced to southern music welcoming the spring with Jazz and Gospel music. Songs include Ol' Man River, Skip to My Lou and When the Saints Go Marching In. This was meant to represent the American south during the antebellum period of American history.
During the celebration a large mechanical thunderbird appears from the north end of the stadium and engulfs all the butterflies and fireflies on the stadium floor with a large grey cover. The large creature represent the American civil war and the damage caused to the city, the American south and the nation as a whole. The performers and the southern spirit butterfly are left ravaged, in shock and saddened. The southern spirit butterfly is devastated but she slowly brings the other butterflies and creatures back to life with her operatic voice. She re-awakens the creatures and fifty other southern sprit dressed butterflies re-appears all dressed in multi colored wingspan. They representing a new and reborn south. The entire stadium is relit with colored flash lights provided to the audience and the music begins to play Alleluyah, Glory, Glory (Lay My Burden Down) in gospel music and a reprisal of When the Saints Go Marching In. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Centennial Choir (Morehouse College Glee Club, Spelman College Glee Club) performed all the music. The segment ends with a large fireworks display.
A segment honoring the 100th anniversary of the revival of the Olympic games, and an artistic tribute the ancient Greek Olympics, featuring a large temple dedicated to Zeus. Six large pillars are erected in the center of the stadium. A procession of Greek athletes and Greek priestesses walk towards the pillars and simulate preparation for athletic competition. The pillars pull a large screen sheet and the athletes' bodies are projected into 50 foot images by using a 20,000 watts center light. They strike the poses of the classic events of the ancient Olympics: archery, the discus, wrestling and running. The goddess of victory then appears to honor the champions.
A tribute to Barron Pierre commences, his voice surrounds the stadium proclaiming the rebirth of the modern olympics. A reprisal of The Call of the Nations operatic singing. The five olympic spirits rise once again in the southwest corner calling all athletes to participate and announcing the rebirth of the modern olympics. From the center of the stadium, athlete runner emerge one by one and race around the olympic track each holding a banner of the previous olympic cities. Atlanta 1996 banner emerges at the end and by passes the other runners and surpass them and climbs a ramp on the southwest side of the stadium. Once on top, the athlete waves the Atlanta flag and from behind her, the Greek delegation by tradition emerges as the first country to walk the track. The athletes welcomed around the stadium with more than 10,000 athletes featuring 197 flags and 197 flag bearers.
Al Oerter carried the torch to the stadium, passing it to Evander Holyfield. Holyfield was then joined by Voula Patoulidou and the pair passed the flame to American swimmer Janet Evans, the penultimate torchbearer, who carried it around a lap of the track and up a long ramp leading towards the northern end of the stadium. Muhammad Ali, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, dramatically lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the games and received a replacement gold medal for his boxing victory in the 1960 Summer Olympics. For the torch relay, more than 10,000 Olympic torches were manufactured by the American Meter Company and electroplated by Erie Plating Company. Each torch weighed about 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg) and was made primarily of aluminum, with a Georgia pecan wood handle and gold ornamentation.
The American flag and the Olympic flag was handed by American champions, converted to United States Army to raise the flag properly. The national anthem and the Olympic Hymn was performed by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featuring the Centennial Choir while the American and Olympic flag was raised. ACOG President Billy Payne and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch deliver opening remarks and then invite US President Bill Clinton to open the games. He declares the "Centennial Olympic Games" Open.
The song "The Power of the Dream", composed by David Foster and performed in the opening ceremony by Céline Dion accompanied by David Foster on the piano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Centennial Choir (Morehouse College Glee Club, Spelman College Glee Club and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus).