Bjork, that dress and the extraordinary Athens 2004 Opening Ceremony

Icelandic pop star Bjork’s display at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 Opening Ceremony was arguably one of the most ambitious musical performances in the history of the modern Games. Here is the inside story, told by the singer herself. 

When the world-famous Bjork arrived in Athens to perform at the 2004 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, her discography was already stacked with hits, most notably her breakout album, Debut, and the platinum-selling follow-up, Post. She also had a well-deserved reputation for spectacular shows primed with creative ambition. In true style, she delivered on both fronts.

The singer worked through Oceania, a track co-written with the poet, Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson, and created especially for the Games. As she sang, a flamboyant, billowing blue dress made of more than 210 metres of material expanded over the athletes watching from the floor of the Olympic Stadium. A supporting cast of dancers dressed as Greek gods and mythical animals added to the ethereal vibe.

"I represent the ocean," the singer said backstage before the show, as she spent two hours being styled for the event. "And the idea is that my dress floods the stadium. It might seem strange, but when the art director, Dimitris Papaioannou, came to me with the plan, he wanted me to write a song that encompassed unity. I thought of the ocean because water touches every continent without thinking about race or prejudice or religion."

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Much of the clear union between artist and Olympic spirit had to do with the mood that drove Oceania, a rush of skittering electronica and breathless vocals that spoke of nature, sweat and a matching of man and nature. "Hawks and sparrow race in my waters/ Stingrays are floating across the sky," Bjork sang as her dress expanded, before Greek athlete Nikolaos Kaklamanakis lit the Olympic cauldron in the roof of the venue.

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"I always ask (Birgir Sigurdsson) when I need something epic, as if it's come from a novel," Bjork said backstage when discussing the creation of Oceania. "So when we got together he came up with the idea of man evolving from plankton into fish and crawling from the sea, and then gradually developing all the way until he reached the Olympics."

The then-38-year-old Bjork's ability to shrug off adversity and improvise was a clear example of one of the traits which had apparently first attracted the attention of the Athens 2004 Games' organisers.

During an interview backstage, the singer explained how it had been her unconventional image that had made her so appealing. She was an artist who represented the new, exciting vibes pouring through Europe at the time. Bjork was a creative force, one that had started her own record label at the age of 14, before enjoying international musical success. Her iconography and stunning performance in Athens helped ensure that the 2004 Opening Ceremony has lived long in the memory.

"Performing at the Olympics?" she laughed backstage, her lavish dress billowing around her. "It's classy, right?"