The first modern Olympic Games took place in 1896 in Athens, Greece. A winter edition started being organised 1924. Every four years the games would be organized somewhere in the world. Since 1994 the winter games take place in between the summer games. The Summer Paralympic Games take place since 1960, the Winter Paralympic Games since 1976, but they unfortunately attract much less attention. Since 1988 they are always organized in the same place as the Olympic Games itself, mostly in the month afterwards. The Olympic Games are always opened by the head of state of the organizing country, and thus when that head of state is a royal, by the King of Queen.
Summer Olympic Games
The Greek royal family was very pleased with the revival of the ancient Olympic Games. When in June 1894 it was decided the event would be held in Athens King George I of Greece wrote: “With deep feeling towards Baron de Coubertin’s courteous petition, I send him and the members of the Congress, with my sincere thanks, my best wishes for the revival of the Olympic Games.” He and his son Crown Prince Constantine agreed to become the patrons of the event. The Crown Prince also became the president of the organising committee. Also Prince George and Prince Nicholas were involved with the organization. George served as president of the Sub-Committee for Nautical Sports, while Nicholas served as president of the Sub-Committee for Shooting.
On 6 April 1896 (25 March 1896 o.s.) King George I of Greece opened the first modern Olympic Games i the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. His wife Queen Olga and his sons accompanied him. As president of the organising committee Crown Prince Constantine held a speech. Then King George I himself officially opened the Games by saying in Greek: “I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people.” On 12 April 1896 (31 March 1896 o.s.) the officials and athletes were invited for a banquet by King George I. In his speech the King himself was pleading for holding the games in Athens permanently. The closing ceremony took place a three days later, again attended by the royal family. The King presented the prizes to the winners.
The events of the Summer Olympics in London were stretched over a long period: from 27 April to 31 October 1908. On 26 March 1908 King Edward VII, under whose patronage the games were held, and Queen Alexandra visited the White City Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremony would be held. The opening ceremony however wasn’t held until July 13th 1908 in presence of the British King Edward VII, who declared the Olympic Games open. Notorious was the refusal of the US-team, with lots of Irish immigrants, to dip the flag when passing the royal box.
It were also the Olympics that the length of the marathon was defined to 26 miles 385 yards (42,195 metres). The reason was a royal request. King Edward VII gave permission for the marathon to start on the East Lawn near the private East Terrace of Windsor Castle. The Princess of Wales, Mary, drove with her children- among them the future kings Edward VIII and George VI – from Frogmore to the castle to watch the start of the race. The Princess of Wales herself pressed the electric button on 24 July 1908 to give the signal for the pistol to be fired. The runners set off through the Sovereign’s Gate. The original winner, the Italian Dorando Pietri, was disqualified after being helped to the finishing line by officials. As a consolation Queen Alexandra presented him the next day with a gold cup.
When in 1909 it was announced that the Summer Olympic Games of 1912 would be held in Stockholm, Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf (son of King Gustaf V) was selected as the Honorary President of the organizing committee, while his uncle Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland (son of King Oscar II) organized the horse riding competitions. Gustaf Adolf would 1913 become the first president of the Swedish Olympic Committee, a function that he held until 1933.
Finally on 6 July 1912 the Olympic Games were opened. The Swedish royal family were received by members of the IOC at the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. After Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf addressed his father King Gustaf V on behalf of the organizing committee, the king himself declared the Games officially open, after which he was cheered. He held quite a long speech saying: “It is with legitimate joy and pride that we Swedes see athletes from every part of the world gathered here with us. It is a great honour for Sweden that Stockholm has been chosen as the scene of the Fifth Olympiad, and I bid all of you, athletes and friends of athletics, a most hearty welcome to this friendly contest of the nations. May the grand thought that found expression in the Olympic Games in classic times be so held in honour by our age too, that these competitions may become a powerful means to promote the physical health and development of every people. With these words, I herewith declare the Olympic Games of Stockholm opened.“
The Olympic Games of 1916 didn’t take place because of World War I. It was Belgium that organized the next Olympic Games in 1920. At the opening ceremony on 14 August 1920 King Albert I of the Belgians appeared in military uniform showing his rank as head of the armed forces. He was accompanied by Queen Elisabeth and his children Leopold, Charles and Marie José. They arrived in the afternoon by train from Brussels at a temporary railway station and from there left for the Olympic Stadium on foot. It was the King who officially declared the games open, in French, by saying: “I proclaim the Olympic Games in Antwerp, celebrating the VII Olympiad of the modern era, opened.” The Belgian athlete Victor Boin was the first in history to take the Olympic oatyh, which he did in front of the King.
The royal family appeared at the competitions several times. The King was present at the 18th IOC meeting on 17 August 1920. On 29 August 1920 the King handed the prizes for the competitions which had already finished to representatives of the respective countries at the Olympic Stadium in Antwerp. There was however some lack of audience during the competition, as the entrance fees were quite high. It made the King say: “It is very pretty … but it lacks people.” One of the most successfull rowers during these Olympic Games by the way was John Brendan Kelly, who won two gold medals. He became the father of actress Grace Kelly, who married Sovereign Prince Rainier of Monaco.
The first time a royal head of state didn’t open the Olympic Games were the games of Amsterdam 1928. Queen Wilhelmina was irritated that she had not been consulted about the date of the opening ceremony, 28 July 1928, and whether the date suited her. She was on holiday in Norway on that date and refused to open the games personally. Her husband Prince Hendrik – who was the honorary president of the Dutch Olympic Committee – took over the job, as was announced in May 1928, although Wilhelmina was the patroness of the event. He had also laid the first stone of the Olympic Stadium in 1927. The Prince arrived at the ceremony in a gala coach. He said: “In name of Her Majesty the Queen I declare the Olympic Games of 1928, to celebrated the IXth modern Olympiad open.“
Queen Wilhelmina however attended the closing ceremony on 12 August 1928 and on the occasion handed out the gold medals to all winners, Prince Henrik handed out the silver medals. On 9 August she, her husband and her daughter Princess Juliana had also attended the equestrian competition in dressage. The Olympic Games actually already started much earlier than July, as the hockey and football competition were already held earlier. Prince Henrik had personally drawn the lots and was present when on 30 May 1928 the Dutch football team played against Uruguay.
It took 20 years before another royal opened the Olympic Games. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Princess Margaret and other members of the royal family attended the opening ceremony on 29 July 1948. The King, wearing his naval uniform, declared the Games open, by saying: “I proclaim the Olympic Games of London celebrating the Fourteenth Olympiad of the modern era open.” Like in 1908 the US team didn’t dip the flag when parading in front of the King, which was supposedly not meant to cause offence this time. During the games the royals regularly showed their interest by turning up at events.
That the Games were held in London was thanks to the King. Despite of the deep financial trouble the country was in, the King beleived that the games would help restore and revitalise the country after World War II. The games became a huge success.
Because of the strict quarantine regulations in Melbourne, Australia, the Olympic equestrian events could not be held there. Stockholm, Sweden, stepped in to organize the equestrian event. It had its own opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm on 10 June 1956 attended by King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, who combined the event with a state visit. Together they arrived in an open carriage. Also Queen Louise of Sweden and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, attended, arriving in another carriage. Also Princess Sibylla, Crown Prince Carl Gustaf, Princess Margaretha and Princess Christina of Sweden were attending.
After he had accompanied his guests to their seats, the King left the Royal Box and stopped halfway the stands. Prince Bertil of Sweden called for cheering the King and then the traditional King’s Song was sung by a choir and the Swedish people attending. Then he went down to the arena, before going back to the Royal Box. After the athletes – all on horseback – had entered the stadium Prince Bertil, as the President of the Organizing Committee held a short speech, before asking the King to declare the games open. He did with the words: “I herewith declare the Equestrian Games in Stockholm in the year 1956 which form part of the XVIth Olympiad of modern times opened and inaugurated.“
The Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne took place from 22 November to 8 December 1956, in the Australian Summer. Also these games were opend by a royal: Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, who arrived in an open Rolls Royce at the stadium as the representative of his wife, Queen Elizabeth II. During his time in Melbourne he had five days without official engagements to be able to enjoy the games. He said: “I declare open the Olympic Games of Melbourne, celebrating the 16th Olympiad of the modern era.“
These Olympic Games were seen as the rebirth of Japan after World War II and a rehabilitation of the Emperor of the country. At the opening ceremony on 10 October 1964 Emperor Hirohito in Japanese had to declare the games open. He stood in a special box, wearing a black suit, all alone, while the athletes marched in up to the moment the Japanese gymnast Takashi Ono took the oath. Other members of the imperial family, including Empress Nagako, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko, were seated behind him.
The Japanese Olympic Committee, who had invited him to open the games in the National Stadium in Tokyo rather as the patron of the games than as the head of state, had carefully translated the Olympic declaration in Japanese, using the word “iwai” for celebrating to announce the games open. He said: “Celebrating the XVIII Modern Olympiad, we hereby declare the opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games.”
The present Emperor, Naruhito, remembered the games as a 4 1/2 year old child years later: “I myself have a lasting memory of the closing ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where athletes from different countries paraded together shoulder to shoulder, not divided by country.“
Finally Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain opened the Olympics in person, despite of several politicians against it. The opening ceremony was held on 17 July 1976 at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. She was accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, and her second son Prince Andrew. The Queen opened the Olympics, first in French, then in English, with: “I declare open the Olympic Games of 1976, celebrating the XXI Olympiad of the modern era.”
Princess Anne competed as part of the British riding team. Her husband, Mark Phillips, had won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, but didn’t take part again until 1988.
A former Olympian himself (1972, sailing) King Juan Carlos of Spain opened the Olympic Games on 25 July 1992, accompanied by Queen Sofia and his daughters Infanta Elena and Infanta Cristina. The king opened the Barcelona Summer Olympics with: “(In Catalan) Welcome all to Barcelona. (In Spanish) Today, 25 July of the Year 1992, I declare open the Barcelona Olympic Games that celebrate the XXV Olympiad of the modern era.”
Prince Felipe, The Prince of Asturias, was competing for Spain in sailing, and managed to reach the 6th place in the Soling class. He was the flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
For the second time in her life Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain opened the Summer Olympic Games, this time on 27 July 2012 in the Olympic Stadium in London. She was accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. Nobody will ever forget her spectacular entrance with a video of James Bond, Daniel Craig, who picked her up from Buckingham Palace, surrounded by corgis. And then stunt actors pretending to be the Queen and Daniel Craig “parachuted” into the Olympic stadium. The Queen then appeared on the steps near her seat. Later on she opened the Olympic Games with the words: “I declare open the Games of London, celebrating the XXX Olympiad of the modern era.”
Many members of the family joined the spectators at several sports events. The Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips competed in the Olympics and won a silver medal with the British eventing team (equestrian).
Because of the Covid-19-pandemic Emperor Naruhito was only one of the very few guests at the opening ceremony on 23 July 2021, held with a year delay. He carefully chose the wording of his opening declaration, opting for a more neutral Japanese word, that came closer to commemorate than to celebrate. In Japanese he said: “I hereby declare the opening of the Tokyo Games to commemorate the 32nd Modern Olympiad.”
The family wasn’t able to attend the games, but the closing ceremony on 8 August 2021 was attended by Crown Prince Akishino.
Winter Olympic Games
The first Winter Olympic Games in Scandinavia were opened on 15 February 1952 at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo by Princess Ragnhild of Norway. She was the first woman to do so, and at 21 also the youngest person who ever officially opened the Olympic Games. It was King Haakon VII who was supposed to open the games, but on 6 February 1952 the British King George VI died. The organising committee held an extra-ordinary meeting on 8 February to discuss changes in the program of the opening ceremony. The IOC session on 12 February was attended by Crown Prince Olav.
On 9 February 1952 Crown Prince Olav gave his consent for Princess Ragnhild to open the games. The reason was that both her father Crown Prince Olav and her grandfather King Haakon VII were travelling to London for the funeral of King George VI, who himself had opened the Olympic Games in 1948. Flags in Oslo were flown at half-mast, during the opening ceremony there was a memorial ceremony for the British King before Ragnhild declared the games opened by saying: “I proclaim open the VI Olympic Winter Games of Oslo in the year 1952, celebrating the XV Olympiad of the modern era.” It was the first time the Olympic flame was lit at the opening ceremony of the winter games. Ragnhild was accompanied by her brother Prince Harald and Princess Joséphine-Charlotte of Belgium.
Once again the patron of the Olympic Games, this time the winter edition, was Emperor Hirohito of Japan. During the opening ceremony in Makomanai Speed Skating Rink on 3 February 1972 he was accompanied by his wife Empress Nagako, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko. They arrived to a 21-burst salute of fireworks. While they entered the Royal Box the “Music Honoring H.I.M. The Emperor” was played as well as the national anthem of Japan. Later on he stood up from his seat to open the games.
The imperial couple arrived in Sapporo on 1 February 1972 and stayed until 7 February 1972. Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko attended the IOC meeting on 30 January 1972. They returned to watch several events between 10 and 14 February 1972. On 10 February they were accompanied by their sons Naruhito and Fumihito (Prince Hiro and Prince Aya at the time). The crown princely couple also attended the closing ceremony on 13 February 1972, on behalf of the imperial couple.
For years King Olav V of Norway had been an avid supporter of Lillehammer as a candidate for the Winter Olympic Games 1992 and recommended the application. Crown Prince Harald himself travelled to Lausanne with a delegation to the IOC session in September 1986. But unfortunately the 1992 games went to Alberville, and soon Lillehammer worked on a new application and in September 1988 Lillehammer managed to win the bid for the 1994 Olympics. on 12 Februar 1994, King Harald V of Norway, who in 1991 had become Norways king, opened the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer by saying in Norwegian: “I hereby declare opened the XVII Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer.”
Crown Prince Haakon lit the cauldron on behalf of the sporters, as one of very few non-athletes ever having done so. He was not an Olympian himself, but both his father and grandfather took part in the sailing at the Summer Olympic Games. His daughter Princess Ingrid Alexandra lit the cauldron during the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics In Lillehammer, although also she didn’t compete.
On 7 February 1998, Emperor Akihito of Japan opened the Winter Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Nagano by speaking in Japanese: “Here, I will declare the opening of the XVIII Olympic Winter Games in Nagano.” He was accompanied by Empress Michiko.