Dissected: Olympic Theme Songs

Music can lose its footing on the world stage

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This feature originally ran July 2012.

dissected logo Dissected: Olympic Theme SongsWelcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we head to the Olympics.

Music can lose its footing on the world stage. There’s not a lot of room for risk taking or subtlety when the message literally has to be translated across the entire globe. Look at Eurovision, the glorious train wreck that it is, for examples of just how packaged and stifled music becomes when it’s meant to be inoffensive and easy to understand.

The Olympic stage creates a similar challenge for artists. Each ceremony, there is — or something close to — an official theme of the Olympics, and most songs picked are original works (though there are some exceptions). The good artists are aware of the challenges and adapt to the boundaries without sacrificing too much of the their own voice (Tina Arena, Whitney Houston). The bad artists are completely unaware of the world outside of mawkish crooning and manage to fool the brass in the board room into thinking that treacly pap will pass for true human inspiration (Gloria Estefan, Flipsyde, many more). And then there’s Bjork.

I chose 11 songs to dissect that were either one of the official themes or heavily used throughout a ceremony’s broadcast. Thanks as always to YouTube for chronicling our hilarious trends of the past and present so that later generations can laugh and laugh at whatever we thought was totally awesome at the time. Enjoy the power synths of the ’80s, the tribal schmaltz of the ’90s, the urban stylings of the ’00s, and of course, Bjork.

–Jeremy D. Larson
Contributing Writer

Tonis Magi – Olimpiada

Moscow 1980

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all?  According to some loose translations, all three.

Timing on Tonis Magi’s 180 degree spin/first note: Perfect.

Where are they in this video? A banquet hall?  Three miles underground? No idea.

Soviet Kitsch factor: Through the roof.

Number of times the audience starts clapping in unison clearly after someone cues them to do so: 1

Choice YouTube comment (fed directly into GoogleTranslate): “It’s amazing how 20 years could have so devalued culture, as such … If you had wanted to watch TV because of this concert, but now wants to take it in the trash along with the contents.”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: This is what you get when the US and 65 other countries boycott your Olympics, Soviet Russia. This what you deserve. Nah I kid, this is actually good compared to some of the dreck coming up.

Giorgio Moroder (feat. Paul Engemann) – “Reach Out”

Los Angeles 1984

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? Mostly the competitive drive within us all. Don’t be fooled by the lyric “Now’s the time to take a hold of your dream.” It’s only in service of reaching out for that gold medal.

Who won the gold medal in the Reaching competition that year? Giorgio Moroder.

Times the word “reach” is said in the song: 20.

Was this the theme to the entire 1984 Olympics? No, this was just the theme for Track.

Was there a theme to the Field events? Yes! Herbie Hancock’s “Junku”, which is the lamest rip-off of “Rockit” this side of commercial licensing.

Wait, how many themes were there for the 1984 Olympic Games?  A whole soundtrack’s worth of themes! (note, Loverboy’s  “Nothing’s Gonna Stop You Now” was the “Team Sports Theme”, just as a catchall.)

Choice YouTube comment: “This song was no.1 in Germany”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: Carl Lewis “reached out” and won four gold medals in track this year. The US did not “reach out” to the Soviet Union to try to ease increasing Cold War prejudices.

Koreana – “Hand in Hand”

Seoul 1988

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? All three.

Who is Koreana? If you don’t know them from their album Discorea, then did you ever even go to a Korean discotheque in the late ’70s?

Reasons why it sounds like “Reach Out”: One, Giorgio Moroder also wrote it.

Shape of sunglasses frames worn by entire band: Circular

Times the entire band joins hands and raises them: 2

Better song featured in 1988 Olympic Games that I didn’t want to be snarky about: Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time”

Choice YouTube comment: “Like an Asian Rick Astley?”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: In the song, they sing “Breaking down the walls that come between us for all time,” and neither the US nor Soviet Union boycotted the games this year, and in 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down, so did Koreana play a part? Absolutely they did.

Queen & Montserrat Caballé – “Barcelona”

Barcelona 1992

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all?  Eternal friendship.

Times the word “reach” is said in the song: 1.

Who has a worse overbite, Freddie Mercury or Montserrat Caballe? It’s a toss-up, really.

Does Freddie Mercury’s voice still give me chills? Oh yeah.

Sadly: Mercury died in 1991, and was slated to perform at the opening ceremonies, but this video was shown in his stead.

Where does this rank among Freddie Mercury songs? Going to go ahead and say in the lower 50%.

Where does this rank among Olympic theme songs? Easily upper 10%. 

Choice YouTube comment:  “YOUR SHOW IS GOIN ON AND ON”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: This song was originally recorded in 1987, unintended for the Olympics.

Gloria Estefan  – “Reach”

Atlanta 1996

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? The indomitable human spirit and the competitive drive within us all.

Who won the gold medal in the Reaching competition that year? Gloria Estefan.

Times the word “reach” is said in the song: 12.

It’s the 90’s, so out with the: Morodor synths.

And in with the: Vague, eclectic tribal rhythms and gospel choirs.

Dramatic, 4th quarter key-changes: 1.

Choice YouTube comment: “grade skwl grad song….miss it badly”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: Kerri Strug reached for the sky when she vaulted on a broken ankle and stuck the landing. USA! USA!

Tina Arena – “Flame”

Sydney 2000

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? Pretty much all three.

Times the word “reach” is said in the song: 1.

Years between this performance and her breakout single “Chains”6.

Dramatic, 4th quarter key-changes: 1.

Really human, and really nervous deep inhalation alert: At 0:17.

Really sassy, Beyonce-like hand gesture alert: At 3:25. 

Simple, direct, easy on the schmaltz, vague but not terrible lyrics: One of the best theme songs!

Choice YouTube comment:  “ever song of olympic is full of dream,tears…i love olympic,i love the hole world!”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: There was actually a computer malfunction in the contraption that sent the torch’s fire to the giant cauldron. Y2K , y’all.

Bjork – “Oceania”

Athens 2004

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? None, it’s an ocean singing about human evolution.

So Björk went and flipped the script on the whole Olympic theme song with “Oceania”? I mean, when she sang “Every pearl is a lynx is a girl” I think you could hear the world collectively sigh, “Where’s Celine Dion?”

Björk’s dress is a:  Humongous piece of fabric that stretches across the floor of an entire stadium then has a map of the world projected on it, obviously.

If it weren’t for the fireworks at the end of the song: I’m legitimately unsure if people would have cheered.

But is this the best Olympic theme song? Yes.

Choice YouTube Comment: “I like it and I don’t like it. It kinda is the kinda song that plays in a schizophrenics head.”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: Iceland won exactly zero medals in 2004 Summer Olympics.

Flypside – “Someday”

Turin 2006

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? The indomitable human spirit.

This is actually not the official theme to the 2006 Winter Olympics: But it was the theme that NBC chose to use for its entire coverage.

Percentage of transparency with regards to NBC trying to reach out to the “kids” with Flypside: 100%.

Percentage of kids inspired by Flypside to join up in local curling leagues: 0%.

Times the word “reach” is said in the song: 0.

Times the phrase “I got a sack in my pocket” is said in the song: 1.

As far as everything goes: Pharcyde > Flypside.

Choice YouTube Comment: 

“im gonna die

you are gonna die

he/she/it is gonna die

we are gonna die

you are gonna die

they are gonna die”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song:  Someday, the U.S. will medal in the best winter sport, the biathlon.

Liu Huan & Sarah Brightman – “You & Me”

Beijing 2008

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? Eternal friendship.

Is this song pretty much an infinitely worse copy of “Barcelona”? Yes.

Sarah Brightman’s voice makes me want to: End it all.

These lyrics: Could have been written by literally anyone.

This song: Is wicked boring, easily the worst theme of all time.

Choice YouTube comment:  “Yes, to some people, peace really is boring…. this is why we have the fuckin wars all over the world.”   — eriksson8698  [touche, eriksson]

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: Beijing won the Men’s 2-person canoe event. (?)

Bryan Adams & Nelly Furtado  – “Bang the Drum”

Vancouver 2010

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? All three!

Would T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong” or  Todd Rundren’s “Bang on the Drum All Day” been better? Probably. (N.b. weird that both of those songs are T-Rex’s and Rundgren’s most known songs, but nowhere near their best.)

It would have made sense if: Arcade Fire wrote a song for the Vancouver Olympics.

Times the word “reach” is said in the song: 1.

Percentage of song that clearly belongs to Bryan Adams: 80%.

Percentage chance that this song will be featured in a remake of the great baseball movie Bang The Drum Slowly: 0%.

But: It’s pretty catchy, and inoffensive.

Choice YouTube comment: “ugh”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: Canada won more gold medals than any other country that year! Canada! Canada!

Muse – “Survival”

London 2012

Is this song about eternal friendship, the indomitable human spirit, or the competitive drive within us all? The indomitable human spirit, and the competitive drive within us all.

Is this the most quintessential Muse song? Almost — it doesn’t mention anything about outer space.

Questionable lyric for an Olympic theme song: “Vengeance is mine.”

Notable: It’s the first song about individualism and “winning” as opposed to “here we all are together let’s do this while we’re hugging if possible.”

Best Olympic events in this montage juxtaposed with the song: Footage of table tennis and dressage.

In 20 years will we listen to this song and laugh at it like we did with the songs from the 80’s? Oh my goodness yes.

Choice YouTube comment: “does anyone else think this is about rowing”

Relevant Olympic Moment tied to this song: Literally will be really supportive of athletes winning races.

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