The 1988 Seoul Olympics featured an inflatable torch with a magic surprise. It might be my favorite torch from any opening ceremony.
The 1988 Seoul Olympics featured an inflatable flame with a magic surprise. It might be my favorite torch lighting from any Opening Ceremony. Screenshot of Beyond All Barriers

In acknowledgement of the 2020 Olympics, which would have kicked off in Tokyo this week, the Criterion Collection is streaming its monumental collection 100 Years of Olympic Films on their streaming platform, the Criterion Channel. The collection includes 53 films and covers 41 editions of the Olympic Games, from Stockholm in 1912 to London in 2012. Every weekday for two weeks, I'll highlight a different moment and film from the last century of Olympic films.

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The lighting of the Olympic cauldron is the most symbolic part of all Olympic ceremonies. Announcing the start of the festival, the torch is lit after an Olympic relay that starts in Greece and ends in the hosting city. Today I want to feature my favorite lighting of an Olympic cauldron, which happened at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. There are many late-80s tacky touches at this Olympics—its dopey mascot, a tiger named Hodori who wears a Sangmo, must be mentioned—but the best part is the inflatable flame.

At first, I loved the balloon's size and shape. But then, after a bit of dancing and cheering and drumming, this happens...

Aaaand...
Aaaand... Screenshot of Beyond All Barriers

...there it goes!
...there it goes! Screenshot of Beyond All Barriers

!!!
!!! Screenshot of Beyond All Barriers

The fucking torch floats into the sky! A whimsical, simple trick. Underneath it is a fire pit where the actual torch ends up being lit.

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The Olympics is a global sports competition on its surface, but at its core it's an exercise in building a utopia. And as a material, inflatables have a long history of being associated with utopic art. Artists of the late '60s and early '70s were specifically interested in inflatables and how they can symbolize and create new environments. I'm thinking about the inflatable "Instant City," created in Ibiza by young designers from around the world in 1971. Some pictures of that:

This torch also makes me think of the extensive work from the collective Haus-Rucker Co, who frequently worked with inflatables.


Lee Ji-won's feature-length film, Beyond All Barriers, shows—in vibrant color!—the 1988 Seoul Opening Ceremony. I can't find a trailer for the film, so I'll embed the official Olympic footage of the ceremony below, but I recommend you just skip it and watch Beyond All Barriers while it's available on the Criterion Channel.