NAGANO, Japan - With the stomp of a sumo wrestler and the passing of a torch, one world assembled for play and for peace at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The ornate opening ceremony that combined ancient Japanese traditions with high-technology magic was held on a crackling, cold winter's morning in this sprawling city and beamed live to the United States last night.
The production featured gigantic sumo wrestlers and tiny ballet dancers, soaring wooden pillars and roaring bonfires.
There was a peace appeal from International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch. He called for the world to honor an ancient Olympic truce "to foster international dialogue and diplomatic solutions to all conflicts, in an effort to bring human tragedies to an end." IOC officials fear their Games could be affected by potential conflict between the United States and Iraq.
But in the end, the attention was focused on a parade of more than 2,000 athletes from 72 nations, marching together before heading off to rinks, forests and mountains for 16 days of sporting pleasure and pain on ice and snow.
The parade began with the team from Greece, birthplace of the Olympics. And it continued with athletes from all corners of the globe, joined for the largest Winter Games in history.
There were cross-country skiers from Kenya, and bobsledders from Jamaica. North Korea ended its years of winter sports isolation by sending a short track speed skater. And Russia, Norway and Germany assembled enormous delegations ready to claim medals in such pursuits as biathlon, bobsled, luge and cross-country skiing.
The 196 athletes from the United States were led by flag-bearer Eric Flaim, a 30-year-old short-track speed skater who came out of retirement in one last bid to get his third Olympic medal.
The host Japanese and their flag-bearer, speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu, received a warm welcome from the 50,000 fans at Minami Nagano Sports Park, a baseball stadium transformed into an intimate theater that resembled a cherry blossom.
Years of planning and billions of dollars in investment appeared to be paying off for the organizers, who lured the biggest winter sports carnival to this industrial hub cradled in a valley in the Japanese Alps.
There were concerns that massive traffic jams would snarl the city of 360,000 on opening day. It didn't happen. Reports that the Japanese would be less than enthusiastic in their third staging of an Olympic Games were apparently wildly off base.
About the only thing missing was snow. Nagano's streets were gray and dry. The city was also without the garish commercial clutter that turned Atlanta into a tacky Olympic town at the 1996 Summer Games.
To reach out and touch winter, though, athletes and fans will have to move indoors to spectacular speed skating and figure skating facilities, or travel an hour to the snow-capped mountains for the skiing events, which get off to a quick start with the men's Alpine downhill, due to be aired tonight live in the United States.
The opening was intimate and entirely in keeping with Nagano's Olympic theme, "Games from the Heart - Together with Love."
nTC It was heralded with the ringing of the bell of Zenkoji Temple, the host city's symbol, which has weathered fire and nourished the spirits of Buddhist pilgrims over the centuries.
The four corners of the stadium were then prepared for the arrival of the Olympic athletes as one thousand locals from the Suwa region marked time with a chant and raised eight wooden pillars called onbashira.
And into this magnificent setting stepped the sumo wrestlers, 37 man-mountains of Japanese sport. Wearing ceremonial aprons over their loin cloths, these athletes, steeped in the tradition and mythology of Japan's national sport, went through their elaborate dohyo-iri ring-entering ceremony.
Japan's Grand Champion, Akebono, born in Hawaii as Chad Rown, then took center stage. The 6-foot-8, 516-pound Akebono stamped the ground to drive out evil spirits.
The traditional elements of an Olympic opening ceremony were blended seamlessly into the show. Sumo wrestlers and school children accompanied the athletes on the march through the pillars and into the stadium.
Japanese Emperor Akihito declared the Games open.
The Olympic flag was borne by Japanese champions on a long, steady march. Olympic oaths were taken on behalf of officials and athletes.
And the Olympic Torch arrived after its mistake-plagued journey on a relay from Greece through Japan. For weeks, the torch kept blowing out.
But the fire remained lit in front of a television audience of billions, as the torch was passed from anti-land mine activist Chris Moon of Great Britain to noted Japanese athletes, and eventually, to figure skater Midori Ito, a 1992 Olympic silver medalist, who ignited the Olympic cauldron.
With ballet dancers lighting Kagaribi bonfires, the world was linked by satellite in song.
Seiji Ozawa of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted a global chorus on five continents, as Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" rang out.
In various languages and keys, the music and words echoed through the stadium: "All men will become brothers,/ Under thy gentle wing."
Pub Date: 2/07/98