Best Olympic anthems: a timeline of the finest music written for the games

John Williams’s theme is probably the best – but it wasn’t the first. Here’s a brief history of the music of the Olympics

Olympic flag

1896 - Olympic Hymn by Spyridon Samaras 

The Olympic Hymn was the first music composed for the Olympic Games and is the official Olympic anthem. The piece is a choral cantata and was first sung at the 1896 Olympics in Athens. 


1968 - Bugler’s Dream by Leo Arnaud 

This is the music that many Americans would associate with the Olympics because of its use by US TV networks in their coverage of the games. The piece was actually commissioned for a music album called Charge! and is part of a longer work, The Charge Suite. Bugler's Dream was picked up by the ABC network as the theme to their coverage of the Grenoble Winter Olympics of 1968.

1981 - Olympic Hymn by Leonard Bernstein

This version of the Olympic Hymn was written by Bernstein for the International Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden, West Germany. The lyrics were written by German author and poet Günter Kunert. The piece was performed at the height of the Cold War between the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 games.

1984 - Olympic Fanfare and Theme by John Williams

Star Wars composer John Williams wrote this piece for the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Its triumphant fanfare and majestic strings have been associated with the Olympics ever since. A later version (not the one in the video below) incorporates Arnaud’s Bugler's Dream , bringing together the two most widely recognised Olympic themes.

The Olympic opening ceremony when 84 pianists played Gershwin >

1994 - Javelin by Michael Torke

This vibrant, fizzy, rollercoaster of a piece was commissioned by the organisers of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - the centenary games. Premiered in 1994 in Atlanta by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it was performed again at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta games in 1996.  

1996 – Summon the Heroes by John Williams

The third of four pieces John Williams has composed for the Olympics (the other two being The Olympic Spirit for Seoul 1988 and Call of the Champions for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics of 2002). Summon the Heroes was written for Atlanta 1996 to mark the centenary of the modern games. Williams himself conducted at the opening ceremony.

Remember when Mr Bean played 'Chariots of Fire' at the Olympics >


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