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A WARM WELCOME U.S. HEARS CHEERS IN OPENING CEREMONY.

Byline: Mirjam Swanson Staff Writer

ATHENS, Greece - On a steamy Friday night in the city that invented the Olympics roughly 2,500 years ago, the modern cloud of drugs, terror and anti-Americanism gave way to a brilliant display of smiles, fireworks and Greek mythology that welcomed the world to the 24th Summer Games.

A crowd of more than 72,000 and athletes totaling another 10,000 jammed Olympic Stadium in an emotional 4-hour celebration to kick off 16 days of competition. South Koreans walked in with North Koreans. The battered nation of Iraq received warm applause.

And with all the fears that resulted in a security tab of almost $2 billion, one of the top moments was hearing the mighty U.S. delegation, which many think is the greatest Olympic team of all-time, being cheered.

``We were crying, we were laughing,'' U.S. volleyball player Tayyiba Haneef said. ``It was a moment I will never forget.''

Of course, the Greek contingent received the warmest reception. In 1896, Greece re-established the modern Summer Games. But until this year, the Olympics did not return.

Despite countless tales of construction problems, cost overruns and possible terrorist acts, the city was glistening. One of the highlights of the ceremony was a huge replica of the five Olympic rings, bathed in fire.

Somehow, it made the Greeks' troubled effort to build an Olympic facility evaporate in the night air.

``We had to do whatever was humanly possible to confront reality,'' said Giana Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens Olympic Organizing Committee. ``On the other hand, we had to present a celebration. We tried to create a balance.''

When the crowd gave the U.S. athletes a positive reception, one of the few questions that remained Friday night was the identity of the final torch bearer to light the Olympic cauldron.

Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, a gold medal-winning sailor at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, became a last-minute substitute for famed Greek sprinter Kostas Kederis, who missed a drug test Thursday and was hospitalized later that night after being involved in a motorcycle accident with female Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou.

Kederis has been Greece's most popular athlete since winning the 200- meter dash four years ago at the Sydney Games. He became his country's first male runner to win an Olympic gold medal since 1896.

But when Kederis and Thanou wound up in a local hospital the night before failing to testify Friday at a disciplinary hearing for missed drug tests, organizers made the switch to Kaklamanakis.

``He is an athlete who makes us very proud,'' Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said of the sailor. ``A gold medalist and good looking, too. And as a sailor, he has close connection to the sea, so he would be the right person in terms of the whole ceremony, which linked Greece to the water.''

The ceremony, part history lesson, part continuous dance mix, built to Kaklamanakis' lighting of the flame with a video that poked some fun at Greece's laid-back approach to setting up the Games.

Next up was an 11-minute rolling parade of living, breathing Greek statues, led off by the fertility goddess, who wore nothing above her waist except paint. She was followed by 400 meters worth of painted statue-actors, playing out periods of Greek history, from prehistoric to Byzantine to the modern era.

The performers gave way to the athletes, and the Iraqis and Americans got warm welcomes, but nothing compared with the arm-waving Greeks, who entered last.

There was a colorful procession of athletes, too. Bermuda's team entered in its traditional shorts, Brazil's athletes strutted in bright lime green, Holland's competitors sported orange ties, and Japan's squad wore flowing pastel outfits that resembled pajamas.

The 538-member U.S. team was headed by two-time Olympic women's basketball gold medalist Dawn Staley as the flag bearer. The athletes were dressed in sporty blue outfits with the letters ``USA'' on the back.

They had been asked by organizers to tone down any celebrations due to the volatile environment worldwide.

``Show us that sport unites by overriding national, political, religious and language barriers,'' said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. ``We need peace, we need tolerance, we need brotherhood.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Basketball player Dawn Staley leads the U.S. contingent into Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony on Friday in Athens, Greece.

Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News

(2) Greek sailor Nikolas Kaklamanakis lights the Olympic cauldron Friday in the Opening Ceremony for the Athens Games.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 14, 2004
Words:752
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