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The best Olympic cauldron lightings of all-time, ranked

From Muhammad Ali at Atlanta 1996 to the acrobatics of Beijing 2008, who’s No. 1?

On Friday, someone will light the Olympic cauldron in Rio de Janeiro, signaling the start of the 2016 Summer Games. 

We don’t know who will light the cauldron, or how that person will ignite the flame. But if past cauldron lightings are any indication, it’s sure to be epic. 

At the 2012 Olympics, seven young athletes were nominated by previous British Olympians and lit the cauldron as a group. Gymnast Li Ning at the 2008 Olympics was the last individual to light the cauldron, as the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics also featured group lightings.

With the opening ceremony almost upon us, we ranked the best Olympic cauldron lightings of all-time. 

5. Sydney 2000

There's something cool about giant staircases at the Olympics. (More of those to come below.) Cathy Freeman, the Australian sprinter, received the torch from hurdler Debbie Flintoff-King and made her climb into a pool of water. She dipped the torch into a ring by the water before being surrounded by a circle of fire and rose to the cauldron. Freeman went on to win gold in the 400 meters.

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4. Los Angeles 1984

When the Olympics went to Hollywood, the possibilities for cauldron lighting were endless. Rafer Johnson, one of UCLA’s greatest athletes of all-time, was picked after winning a silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Johnson was also at Sen. Robert Kennedy’s side when he was assassinated, and the Olympian helped take down assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Johnson accepted the torch from Jesse Owens’s granddaughter, Gina Hemphill, and then proceeded to make his way up a never-ending staircase. 

3. Beijing 2008

All the way up! China's 1984 gymnastics gold medalist Li Ning was selected and took flight, circling the Bird’s Nest before lighting the paper scroll-inspired cauldron. A crowd of 90,000 people watched from below in one of the most breathtaking Opening Ceremonies in recent memory. 

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2. Barcelona 1992

Antonio Rebello did not throw away his shot. The Spanish archer stole the show when he shot a flaming arrow to light the cauldron. The actual target was a sandbox outside the stadium. The extraordinary moment kicked off one of the most successful Olympics ever. 

1. Atlanta 1996

With his hands trembling due to Parkinson’s Disease, Muhammad Ali accepted the torch from five-time gold medalist Janet Evans to light the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. (Actually, SI ranked it at No. 68 on the 100 Greatest Sports Moments) The moment came 36 years after he won gold at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. In the years that followed, Ali became an American icon, speaking out against racism, the Vietnam War and other political issues while dominating the sport of boxing. Try to watch Ali lighting the cauldron without getting chills.