BARCELONA SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain -- You had to be here when dusk fell and a field of blue turned into a rainbow. You had to breathe in the heavy air from the sea and hear the roar of a crowd, as the son of a monarch grabbed a Spanish flag and led a delegation of his country's athletes on a joyful march around the track.
And you had to wave fluorescent, blue-and-gold lights and feel the burst of fireworks dancing against your skin, to understand what this ceremony was about.
Royals wept. Magic Johnson smiled. A world stood united in a stadium atop a hill.
The 1992 Summer Olympics opened last night with a confection from Catalonia. These were the sweetest opening ceremonies in history, bringing together a record 10,000 athletes from 172 nations.
South Africans marched for the first time in 32 years, as a marathon runner named Jan Tau, whose parents have never known employment, carried the country's new Olympic flag, while Nelson Mandela watched from the stands.
"Let bygones be bygones," said Mandela, whose walk from jail was the first step to South Africa's return to the Olympics. "We are here and intend to participate fully."
Twelve former Soviet republics, each represented by a flag, were clustered as a Unified Team.
Germany appeared as one team united. Cuba reappeared after a self-imposed eight-year Olympic exile.
Three Baltic states returned, and Croatia, Slovenia and war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina came as new countries on the Summer Olympic block.
Yugoslav athletes were banned from the procession by a United Nations sanctions committee, bent on stopping war by applying economic and social muscle.
There were pleas for peace. A call to 16 days of glory. And a final fiery jolt, as Antonio Rebollo, a 37-year-old archer from Madrid, launched a flaming arrow into a cloud of gas to ignite the Olympic flame.
The United States delegation of 610 athletes was led by 39-year-old marathon runner Francie Larrieu Smith, the petite flag bearer who raced quickly around the track. The American women dressed in fuchsia jackets, print skirts and white hats with blue bands. The men wore blue blazers, khaki trousers, red-white-and-blue ties, and white hats with blue bands.
Carl Lewis marched. So did most of America's Dream Team, the collection of millionaire NBA stars out to reclaim the gold medal in basketball. Scottie Pippen was there. So was Clyde Drexler. And so, too, was Johnson, whose professional career was interrupted when he announced he has the virus that causes AIDS.
A camera crew followed Johnson's march. Fans called his name. Athletes from other countries stopped beside him to pose for pictures.
It was a remarkable display of star power mixed with solidarity.
"My message to others is to keep your head up and life goes on," Johnson said before the ceremony. "You can live on. Hopefully, I can accomplish that gold medal for everyone in the U.S., for everyone who is HIV positive."
Spanish King Juan Carlos declared the Games officially open, moments after his son, Prince Felipe, led Spain's athletes on an emotional journey in a stadium drenched with history.
Prince Felipe carried Spanish colors, but in the stands, Catalan flags were unfurled.
It was here, in 1936, that Catalonia attempted to stage an alternative games to Adolph Hitler's Nazi Olympics in Berlin. But on the morning of the opening, the games were called off, as athletes and spectators took up arms in a vain attempt to block General Francisco Franco's violent campaign to bring fascism to one last corner of Spain.
When Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall declared, "Fifty-six years ago, the People's Olympiad should have taken place here in this stadium of Montjuic," a hush fell over the crowd of 65,000. And when he invoked the name of Lluis Companys, a Catalan hero who defied Franco and was executed inside the stadium, the crowd roared.
"This city of ours, the open city of Barcelona, is today your city, the city of the entire world," Maragall said.
The world watched a party that began with an "Hola" from the crowd and continued with the dance of the Sardana. There were women dressed as yellow birds and men building pyramids on their backs and shoulders. A cellophane sea became the battleground between good and evil, as Hercules and a band of rowers beat back obstacles that included mutant Swiss Army knives and multi-headed monsters.
But the show couldn't end until the last opera singer sang. From Carreras to Caballe to Kraus to Baltsa to Domingo, there was enough decibel power to fill five La Scalas. Yet all were upstaged by a 13-year-old Barcelona boy named Eleatzar Colomer, who sang the first notes of "Ode to Joy," and brought the crowd to its feet for a fireworks show that lighted the sky.
You wept. You laughed. You believed.
You had to be here.