ATLANTA -- The Centennial Olympic Games got under way here last night by following a new creed for the opening ceremonies at Olympic Stadium. It was a creed for the '90s, and for the kind of show this city and its local organizers have been promising since they received the bid six years ago.
Longer, larger, louder.
And maybe more dramatic.
Before a crowd of 83,100 roaring fans that included President Clinton and his family, before a worldwide television audience expected to reach some 3.5 billion, and with the largest gathering of nations and athletes in the history of this quadrennial competition, the 1996 Games officially opened for business. The 16 days of competition begin this morning with the first medal being awarded in shooting.
But the show, as well as the more than 10,000 athletes, was overshadowed by the presence of the torch bearer. Muhammad Ali, who won a gold medal as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and then tossed it into the Louisville River to protest prejudice in his home country, brought the crowd to cheers and tears as he received the torch from four-time gold-medal swimmer Janet Evans.
Ali, his left hand shaking from the effects of Parkinson's syndrome, lit a conveyor pulling the flame up to the caldron. When it reached the top of the lattice-like tower and spread in the caldron, the crowd erupted. It was a touching moment to see perhaps the most beloved athlete in modern sports history having another spotlight shining on him.
It took the better part of five hours between the arrival of the crowd and the lighting of the Olympic caldron. The torch was brought into the stadium by four-time gold medalist Al Oerter, who handed off to Atlanta native and former Olympian and world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield. He in turn handed off to Voula Patoulidou, the 1992 gold medalist in the women's 100 meters from Greece. She gave it to Evans, who ran up the ramp and placed it in the hand of Ali.
The celebration for the opening of the first Olympics on U.S. soil since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles was marked by the arrival of most of the 10,624 athletes competing here and, for the first time in history, all of the world's countries. The U.S. delegation was the last of the 197 delegations to come through the tunnel of the huge stadium, led by four-time Olympians Bruce Baumgartner and Teresa Edwards. Baumgartner, a two-time Olympic wrestling champion, carried the American flag and Edwards, the only U.S. basketball player to play on four Olympic teams, took the oath for herself and 663 teammates.
"It's the highlight of my career," said Baumgartner.
Said Edwards, who celebrated her 32nd birthday yesterday: "In 1984, I was just a baby. I was one of the youngest members of the team. I remember seeing Edwin Moses taking the oath and thinking, 'My God, how can he remain so calm at that moment?' Now when I see him, I think about that."
Not all the action was taking place inside the stadium. Outside, just before the start of the show, there was brisk ticket scalping, with the cheapest ($212) seats going for up to $300 but the most expensive ($636) in abundance and selling for as little for $400.
It was not only the biggest group of athletes ever assembled on a single field, but the most elaborate, and perhaps, gaudy, opening ceremonies ever staged. The program began with a colorful yet bizarre sequence entitled "Call to Nations," which featured a frenetic group of musicians and dancers called the Tribes of the Spirits. They formed the five Olympic rings and a dove of peace.
That preceded the introduction of Billy Payne, the man credited with bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, as well as International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. They went onto the tarmac covering the floor of the track stadium to greet Clinton. The U.S. national anthem was played, with a backdrop of fireworks followed by the flyover of eight F-16 fighters.
The next sequence was called "Atlanta's Welcome To The World" and featured cheerleaders from a number of colleges, including the University of Maryland, as well several American dance forms, from Southern folk cloggers to stepping by members of eight national black fraternities. Surrounding the dancers was another Southern tradition, a caravan of 30 pickup trucks.
It was followed by a rendition of "Georgia On My Mind" by Atlanta native Gladys Knight, a sequence of Gospel music and )) the 100-minute parade of nations that began with Greece -- payback for Athens losing out to Atlanta for these Games -- and ended with Baumgartner leading the U.S. team into the stadium dressed smartly in the colors of the American flag.