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Origin of the Olympic Theme and Fanfare

A ski jumper prepares for launch
A ski jumper prepares for launch
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Recognizable to most Americans, the triumphant fanfare of the Olympic Theme will be heard many times as the games in Sochi continue. Due to most of the attention being put on the athletes, and deservingly so, the theme is often heard passively in the United States. Yet while the focus of the Olympics always should and will be on the athletes, the origin of the theme presents an interesting story.

Ask a random stranger in any town in America, and they might be able to tell you that John Williams composed the Olympic Theme. Having composed famous themes such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, John Williams is quite well known for his “theme” reputation. Yet that answer would only be half correct. Little known to the American public, the Olympic Theme is actually an arrangement of two different fanfares done by NBC for the 1996 Olympics. One fanfare, the “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”, composed by John Williams for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the other, “Bugler’s Dream”, was composed by Leo Arnaud in 1958.

Originally not written for the Olympics, “Bugler’s Dream” was etched in the minds of Americans when ABC used it for its coverage of the Winter Olympics in 1968. Yet when Williams’ fanfare was performed live in Los Angeles, both ABC and NBC used the fanfares interchangeably. After years of composer confusion, NBC acquired the rights to broadcast the games of 1996. For these games NBC arranged the two pieces by replacing Williams’ beginning with the opening of “Bugler’s Dream”. This overall created a more seamless and recognizable theme to be used for the Olympics.

Today the Olympic Theme is one of the most recognizable themes in America. Virtually every aspiring Olympian dreams of the trumpets screaming out the victorious high notes as they take their imaginary victory lap. It would be criminal for anyone to say anything to them against going for the gold, yet it may serve some good to know the facts before they get there.