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Friday, August 13, 2004 - Page updated at 04:07 P.M.

Opening ceremony begins with tribute to Greek mythology

The Associated Press

Performers representing figures from Greek mythology enter the stadium during the Opening Ceremony.
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ATHENS — With a shout that boomed 400 drums pounding out the symbolic heartbeat of mankind, Greece opened its arms in unabashed and sometimes brazen fashion to a world that doubted.

Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, probably put it best of these 2004 Summer Olympic Games in which full competition begins Saturday, after a night of Opening Ceremonies wonder.

"The first gold medal is already won," Ueberroth said just two days before Friday night's extravaganza at a packed-to-overflowing 75,000 seat Olympic Stadium. "It was won by the organizing committee and the people of Greece.

"They've defied all those in this room (of media) and most every reasonable person thinking they wouldn't be ready."

This is where the Olympic Games began nearly three millennia past, in 776 B.C. This is where they were reborn in 1896. And after a wait of 108 years, this is where Greece offered at least emotional evidence that this is where they belong in 2004.

"Olympic Games! Welcome Back to Greece!" was the pronouncement made shortly after 8:45 p.m. in Athens. Thirteen minutes past midnight, the revelry raged, with a joy that felt like an embrace for every one of the record 202 countries whose athletes took nearly two hours to parade around the oval of stadium, originally built in 1982 and renovated in 2000 and again in 2004, some final touches made only in the days leading up to this ceremony.

"For the rest of your lives, you're going to be proud of making it here," former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said in a speech to an American athletic delegation that was cheered briefly, if not overwhelmingly, by spectators.

Rulon Gardner, one of the 350 of 538 Americans who were eligible to walk in the parade of athletes, said he could not have imagined missing the experience.

"I carried the flag in the Closing Ceremonies in Sydney," said Gardner, the wrestling author of one of the greatest gold medal upsets in modern Olympic history four years ago in Australia. "But this is my last Games."

As ordered by U.S. Olympic officials, the entrance of the U.S. athletes was controlled. There were no U.S. flags waved. Yes, the American's waved to the crowd. The rows of eight across were fluid enough to make a drill sergeant curse.

But at a time when American government actions in the War on Terror draw criticism in some quarters both at home and abroad, there was no risk taken of offending.
Janet Evans — U.S. swimming superstar in the Games of 1988, 1992 and 1996 — was glad to be on hand, if only as a spectator.

As an athlete, she had never able to take the risk of walking in the Opening Ceremonies.

"You can spend eight hours on your feet," Evans explained.

And that is not conducive, of course, to swimming for gold the next day.

That is why current American superstar Michael Phelps did not take part on Friday night. That is why Kansas City gymnasts Courtney McCool and Terin Humphrey — scheduled to begin team preliminary competition on Sunday — watched the ceremonies on television, like millions around the world.

"It doesn't really bother me," said McCool, "because when you watch the Olympics, you watch the Opening Ceremonies. But that's not the exciting part of the Olympics. I'm more excited about the competition."

Such concerns did not keep the U.S. women's basketball team — which Saturday opens play against New Zealand — from marching in support of floor general and U.S. flag-bearer Dawn Staley.

"It's something you don't dream about," Staley said. "You really don't. It's a fairy tale that somehow ended up in my lap."

The entire night took on a fairy-tale quality, from the moment that a pyrotechnic comet splashed down in the middle of the "sea of life." It took six hours to fill the center of the performance field with 571,100 gallons of water. Later, it took just about three minutes to drain it, so that the athletes could take their places beneath a cascade of fireworks.

In between was a phantasmagoria of symbolic history. A small boy sailing across the seas in a paper boat, waiving a blue and white Greek flag.

A human panorama, circling the sea, depicting the legends of the Greek gods Athena and Zeus and Hera et al. Performers covered in white makeup from head to toe resembled marble statues even down to some rather realistic displays of prosthetic male genitalia.

Yes, there was the brazen part.

There was a young Greek mother to be, symbolic of the rebirth of life, whose protruding belly was spotlighted as she waded into the sea, producing a swirling double helix of human DNA in a trick of light projected into a floating mist.

From that emerged men and women of every race, every shade. This was above all a celebration of life, of a commonality of gathering.

Experience will likely show that it will not change the world after the 16 days of these Summer Games.

Iran's flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies, judo world champion Arash Miresmaeili, withdrew from the Olympics after the draw pitted him against Israel's Ahud Vaks. Iranian officials said Miresmaeili quit because he sympathized with the Palestinian cause against Israel.

Still, in the middle of the stadium, photographers found a picture to be taken of female athletes from Iraq and the United States embracing.

IOC president Jacques Rogge waxed predictably, to his Greek audience. "Tonight, the whole world is paying Greece a triple homage," Rogge said. "Humanity owes you this marvelous adventure that is the Olympic Games, created 28 centuries ago in Olympia.

"The world is also honoring you for having revived these Games in 1896, here in Athens, following the call of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games. Above all, the world is honoring and thanking you tonight for the organization of the Olympic Games, which are coming back to their roots. Our world today is in need of peace, tolerance and brotherhood.

"Thank you Athens. Thank you Greece."

Nearly, but certainly not entirely, forgotten seemed to be the seemingly impending Olympic ouster of sprinter Costas Kenteris, one of Greece's best hopes for a medal in track and field.

Kenteris, widely rumored to be the Greek to light the Olympic flame in the stadium at evening's end, did not. He seems destined to miss more than just the Opening Ceremonies.

On Thursday, he was nowhere to be found when sought for a drug test. Early Friday Kenteris and Greek woman sprinter Katerina Thanou were admitted to a Greek hospital after a motorcycle accident, suffering what various Greek officials called serious to nothing more than incidental injuries.

According to Greek media reports, "this accident occurred because they were in a bad psychological state."

By Monday, International Olympic Committee officials could decide whether the two Greek sprinters should be banned from the Olympics for "refusing, or failing without compelling justification, to submit" to a drug test.

Instead of Kenteris, the torch at Olympic Stadium was set blazing by Nikolaos Kakalamanakis, who won Olympic gold in the mistral sailing class at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

At the end of the evening, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee was beaming.

"You will be moved," she told all. "You will be awed. Inspired, and exhilarated. Watching the best athletes in the world, doing their best, here in Athens.

"Olympic Games! Welcome home!"

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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