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NOTHING ANCIENT ABOUT THIS KICKOFF TO GAMES.

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

ATHENS, Greece - Three thousand years later, the Greeks got around to giving us something else noteworthy.

A truly spectacular opening, the greatest one-night show in the world. It was as serious as Plato's ``Republic'' yet managed to be entertaining, in that we're-the-Greeks-and-we-gave-you-the-worldLine is overdrawn kinda way.

Recent opening ceremonies have tended toward the three-ring circus routine, where so much was going on at the same time you never knew where to look. Overblown TV extravaganzas, where if the camera wasn't pointed at the appropriate place with the commentator telling you exactly what you were watching, you were lost.

Athens' opening night number Friday was much more focused and less chaotic, and certainly made the reasonably subdued Olympic Stadium crowd happy.

They were a polite little bunch. During the parade of athletes, they did not boo the Americans, who still received their most lukewarm welcome in Olympic memory. Heck, they didn't even boo Turkey. They did have plenty of cheers for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Greeks may have given us the Olympics, democracy and theater, but must have missed the part about comedy.

The only levity in the program was introduced before the TV cameras rolled when five guys dressed in work clothes and wearing hard hats came out to open the preshow, and one guy with a hammer started pounding away at the stage.

Hey, just kidding. Everything's done. Turned out to be preshow host Nikos Aliagas.

Once the opening ceremony got under way, there were fireworks, water, fire, high-wire routines galore, glorious hues and special effects to make your local FX specialist envious.

Any more people flying through the air, and you would have thought you'd stumbled into a superheroes convention.

Things came out of the water. Floated in the air. Broke into other objects. Changed colors, were used as video screen, turned into abstract mountain.

It was all very tasteful, well thought out and filled with dramatic moments. A very modern opening ceremony for the modern Olympic Games.

These things have gone high-tech since hundreds of kids danced around the Coliseum in all those pale colors, and more often than not, Athens' efforts paid off.

The show was homage to all things Greek, which meant mostly ancient Greece. There were references to ancient gods Eros, Athena, Nike, Apollo, Hera, Potnia Theron and Zeus.

There were also a nifty centaur, Pegasus and a satyr, but not a lousy Minotaur to be found.

The parade of athletes is always this combo highlight-lowlight. It's great fun, for a while. Despite efforts, it just takes forever for 201 nations to parade their Olympic athletes around a stadium.

If it had taken any longer, it would have been ``Lord of the Rings IV.'' Maybe next time they could put them on Rollerblades.

The national getups are always interesting. There were a lot of bridesmaid dresses out there - outfits worn once and never again.

The Moldova women's dresses were hot pink. In Kiribati - I don't know where it is either - apparently the women wear hula skirts.

The Uzbekistan women will next be working at Hot Dog on a Stick. The Bahrain women took the award for most sequins.

And you have to worry about the Burundi men who danced around in leopard skins and headdresses. What did they do with those spears?

The Virgin Islands apparently doesn't allow anyone on its team under 55. China won the award for tallest flag bearer: Yao Ming.

Djibouti had a flag bearer and no one else. Tennis player Abdo Abadallah is a one-woman team.

Palestine entered with flag bearer Sanna Abubkheet flashing the peace sign and the men behind her carrying olive branches.

There were, however, few open displays of politics. Even the United States, not exactly beloved in these parts after invading Iraq, was treated respectfully.

When the U.S. entered as the 56th nation, naturally just before Japan, it received polite applause. American flags were conspicuously absent among the 70,000 at the stadium. Guess you never know who's sitting next to you.

Unlike its laid-back, mill-around-the-track entrance of previous Olympics, the U.S. team entered in respectful rows of eight. The mini-Dream Team entered last, still being given the silly celebrity status. Allen Iverson looked bored.

Taking all this in across the aisle from me was Great Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair. Dubya was nowhere to be found and no U.S. dignitary attended in his place.

After the Greeks entered, we got another history lesson on how they brought back the Games. The organizing president, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, announced, ``Olympic Games, welcome home.''

Then the International Olympic Committee president, Dr. Jacques Rogge, said something in Greek, which I believe was: ``I knew you could do it. Never doubted you for a second.''

The torch was lit by a backup after Sydney 200-meter gold medalist Costas Kenteris missed his drug test, then was alleged to have been in a motorcycle accident. Athens officials gritted their teeth and denied it.

Right, that sailing guy was your No. 1 pick all along.

At least Nikolaos Kaklamanakis ran through the stadium and up the 48 stairs safely. Then the giant cauldron, looking something like an overgrown pen, pivoted and was lit.

Very impressive. Of course, the fireworks at the end accidentally caught an incredibly tall crane outside the stadium on fire, but that was a little thing.

On the whole, the Greeks got the opening ceremony right. Now we get to see whether they can pull the games off as well.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) A fireworks display lights up the Olympic Stadium for the effects- heavy opening ceremony festivities on Friday night in Athens, Greece.

Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 14, 2004
Words:948
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