Olympic torch songs: the good, the bad, and the downright bonkers

Katie Perry is the latest musician given the honour of performing an Olympic anthem. With the opening of the Rio Games just days away, we look at the chequered history of the songs that aim to inspire athletes and audiences alike.

Katy Perry, whose song Rise is one of the official anthems for this year's Rio Olympic Games. J Scott Applewhite / AP Photo.
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Reflecting on the Olympics theme songs of decades gone by offers little sign of a winning formula. There is no obvious considered ethos or guiding principles that link the eclectic choice of artists, who include José Carreras, Muse, Celine Dion, Björk and Giorgio Moroder, and who, in recent years, have been asked to deliver official songs commemorating the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza.

The latest Games – which start in Rio do Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday – have been promoted with the effective official anthem Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro (Gods of Olympus Visit Rio de Janeiro). It's an authentic, funky Latin groove that unites Brazil's traditional samba schools and rousingly plays on national stereotypes.

So far so good – but another tune selected as an official anthem for the 2016 games is Katy Perry's Rise, an anodyne electro-pop stomper cluttered with pointless samples of Olympics commentators and whooping crowds.

The most prolific – and therefore, we must conclude, most successful – Olympics theme songwriter is John Williams, the American film composer best known for his rousing scores to blockbusters such as Star Wars, Jaws and Indiana Jones.

This sense of cinematic grandeur was captured successfully on his first orchestral Olympics theme, for the 1984 games in Los Angeles, and he was called in again in 1988 (Seoul, South Korea), 1996 (Atlanta, United States), and for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The tradition of Olympics organisers parachuting in major music stars to perform a radio anthem arguably began with the 1992 Games in Barcelona. It was a vintage year for music, which established two modern standards.

The first came from crossover opera stars Sarah Brightman and José Carreras, who teamed up for the ballad Amigos Para Siempre (Friends for Life), which was composed by the hit musical team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and legendary lyricist Don Black.

The 1992 Games took place a year after Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s death, and his “pop-opera” epic Barcelona – originally the title track of a 1987 album of duets with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé – was reappropriated as an emotive theme song for the city’s games.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics served up a couple of curiosities. The better remembered is Whitney Houston's soppy One Moment in Time, composed by John Bettis and Albert Hammond, father of Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, which topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic.

But the more remarkable of the two is the electro trippiness of South Korean act Koreana's Hand in Hand, an epic multilingual, disco ballad produced by the Italian dance pioneer Giorgio Moroder.

This kind of quirkiness is in marked contrast to the template-fitting theme songs that followed.

The 1996 Games in Atlanta opened with Celine Dion, who played perfectly to expectations with Power of the Dream, a soaring, aspirational ballad destined to be a karaoke favourite. The Games closed with Gloria Estefan's utterly unremarkable ballad Reach.

Four years later, John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John teamed up at the Sydney Olympics to sing Dare to Dream, a syrupy song few born outside Australia are likely to recall.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, in 2004 we had Björk live at the opening ceremony in Athens, crowing in a dissatisfied tone about centuries and oceans over warbling beats, in a typically kooky dress. Originally drawn from her experimental masterpiece Medúlla – a kind of conceptual reflection on the physical realm of blood and the body – the track Oceania has no rousing intent or sporting references, and was instead sung from the point of view of a body of water watching over evolution. Utterly bonkers, but kind of brilliant, the Greeks reclaimed the Olympics song in style.

It was perhaps this beguiling selection that inspired the organisers of the London 2012 Games – we shall gloss over Beijing's forgettable Chinese-language piano duet You and Me – in seeking out the most bombastic British act they could find: Muse.

With Survival, the excessive, proggy trio wrestled with combining their brief – to write a universal anthem for mass-consumption– and their own propensity for Teutonic silliness.

At the end of this particular race, silliness was the first to cross the line. Lyrics such as: “I’ll light the fuse and I’ll never lose” meant this one never really got out of the starting blocks.

rgarratt@thenational.ae