The Torch Is Lighted Albertville Games

February 09, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Correspondent

ALBERTVILLE, France -- There was a ballet of bungee jumpers, an angel that pedaled across the sky, a wave that swept up an American vice president and a flag-bearer from Bermuda who wore shorts -- and goose bumps.

And that was the stuff you could understand.

Yesterday, in a temporary 30,000-seat amphitheater surrounded by gorgeous chunks of snow-capped Alpine peaks, the new world order met the New Age.

The 16th Winter Olympics opened with a two-hour show that was Alice In Wonderland meets ice and snow. There were hockey players on stilts, biathletes on roller blades and ski jumpers launched from wooden platforms shaped like giant soup ladles.

It was tres strange.

* Women dressed as human snow domes, their heads topped with the names of the parading nations. Sort of the Carmen Miranda look for the 1990s.

* Drummers, hanging like so many Christmas ornaments while suspended from cranes 300 feet in the air.

* An 11-year-old girl raised 10 stories on a platform while singing "The Marseillaise."

* The official Olympic party animals from Canada starting a wave that even French President Francois Mitterrand and U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle joined.

"I thought it was like a fairy tale," said cross country skier Ben Husaby of Eden Prairie, Minn. "It was 3-D."

But the mesmerizing two-hour ceremony that began near sundown under an aqua sky and ended as a crescent-shaped moon rose over snowcapped peaks, struck just the right computer-generated chord for a wacky sporting age.

Empires and nations have vanished since the Olympic nations met last in Seoul, South Korea, in the summer of 1988. The Olympic world has been turned inside-out by the merging of Germany and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

So, there was one German team led by a former soldier from the East, two-time bobsled gold medalist Wolfgang Hoppe.

And there was one formerly Soviet sports machine -- divided four ways. The Unified Team of the Commonwealth of Independent States marched behind the five-ringed Olympic flag carried by biathlete Valeri Medvedtsev, while the athletes waved tiny paper flags from five republics.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania marched in the Olympics for the first time in more than half a century.

Waving Latvia's maroon-and-white flag was bobsledder Janis Kipurs, who once won a gold medal for the old Soviet Union, and who stood along barricades and faced Soviet tanks a year ago January in Vilnius.

"This is why we are so happy to be here to show the world that we are a country like other countries, and not some part of a country," said Aldons Vrublevskis, secretary general of the Latvian Olympic Committee.

The United States delegation of 182 was led by a cross country skier who toyed with a to-dip or not-to-dip question.

Bill Koch, a four-time Olympian from Redmond, Wash., announced he might break with an 84-year tradition and lower the American flag while passing in front of the box filled with European royalty and heads of state. But when it came time to make history, Mr. Koch chose to keep the flag raised.

"The whole thing was pretty amazing," Mr. Koch said. "What I'm really pleased with is that we didn't come off as arrogant."

The Americans were dressed up for a change. Normally, they appear at the Olympics as if they're headed out for a night at Denny's -- or Animal House. But yesterday, they looked positively, well, French with a collection of cobalt and burgundy coats and hats.

Football star Herschel Walker wore sunglasses. Speed skating medal hopeful Dan Jansen waved. The crowd cheered. The team even received a bright introduction from an announcer who said: "Bronze, silver, gold. Oh, what glittering fates await the team from the United States."

Some traditions were followed.

Before the jugglers and tumblers took the slate-gray stage, before the men on stilts with balloons rising from their heads circled the arena, before the bungee jumpers flew up and down like yo-yos from a spire, before the angel pedaled a cycle on a wire, before the whole show ended with hundreds of kids waving flags and lime-green tufts of cloth soaring, there was this:

Greece led the parade of nations.

A medal hopeful from the host country, Surya Bonaly, 18, breathlessly took an oath on behalf of the athletes.

And the final Olympic torchbearer was a national star, former soccer player Michel Platini, who, accompanied by Francois-Cyrille Grange, 9, ignited a ball of fire that lighted the portable Olympic flame.

The flame will burn for 15 more days, casting a light on a worldwide athletic spectacle.

But already, one thing is certain: These Games can't get any weirder.

Can they?

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