NAGANO, Japan -- What the TV cameras can't show you is the darkness. The underground passageway beneath the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple is so dark, you can't see your breath form in the cold air, you can't see your hand in front of your face, you can't see a thing.
The only way to negotiate the tunnel is to run your hands along the wall and allow your feet to follow, searching for the "key to paradise" that ensures salvation. It is here, in the pitch black, where the true Olympic ideal is found. It is here, in the pitch black, where all men are indeed equal.
In many ways Nagano resembles a bustling American city, complete with fast-food joints and convenience stores. The Japanese Alps form a magnificent backdrop. The cab drivers wear coats and ties. But the temple gives the city its identity. As the saga of Motoicho Godo attests, nowhere else could the opening ceremonies begin.
In a previous existence, Godo was a 17-year-old sailor in the Japanese Imperial Navy, reporting for kamikaze duty. More than five decades later, he appeared outside the temple, ringing a five-foot-tall iron bell to open these Games. A bell to purify the competition. A bell of spirit and love. A bell for peace.
"If I sleep in, there will be no Olympics," Godo joked outside the temple the day before the Ceremonies, with a Japanese photographer translating. He had a warm, easy smile, but he also appreciated the solemnity of the moment. "If the war is a year longer," he said, "I wouldn't be here."
The war. World War II. Most Americans recall kamikazes as pilots, but Godo's suicide mission was at sea. Specifically, his assignment was to ram a boat filled with explosives into the side of a U.S. battleship, killing himself and, if all went according to plan, the Americans, too.
A death notice, that's what it was, and Godo got his on Aug. 5, 1945. The next day, the Americans dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, they dropped another on Nagasaki. And six days after that, the Japanese surrendered.
Japan was ruined. But Godo was saved.
He became a farmer, then a lay assistant at the famed Buddhist temple, ringing the bell hourly, cleaning the grounds, keeping watch at night. One of his duties is to make sure that a lantern that has burned constantly for more than 1,300 years is not extinguished. Another is ringing the 322-year-old bell.
Godo, now 69, says the war with the U.S. is long forgotten, says he "very much" wants world peace. Life is tranquil at the temple. But in a very different place on the other side of the planet, the American government refuses to say that it will honor the Olympic truce, and decline from attacking Iraq during the Games.
The United States wouldn't be the first country to break the truce, a tradition that calls for all military actions to cease during the Olympics. And President Clinton isn't going to bow to pressure from the United Nations and International Olympic Committee, not when he's the one dealing with Saddam Hussein.
We're not going to wag the dog and debate the merits of another Mideast skirmish. But every two years now the Olympics return, pointing out the foolishness of such violence. Every two years athletes from almost every nation gather, offering a fresh reminder of how the world is supposed to be.
Idealistic? You bet it is. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch knows he can't influence Clinton's Gulf policy. He wasn't about to insult the president at his opening news conference. All he could say was, "Our hope -- and I repeat I can only say hope -- is that the Olympic Truce will be observed."
Such words can sound preachy, even preposterous in this day and age. But the Olympics still stand for something, and not just commerce. Yes, CBS built its broadcast studio on the grounds of the temple. But at 7 a.m. on the temple grounds, the studio seems inconspicuous enough, almost besides the point.
The priests are inside the temple, conducting their morning ritual. They sit and chant, their voices rising and falling in perfect unison. Visitors rub a worn figure of Buddha's follower, the ancient physician Binzuru, seeking relief from their own aches and pains. The smell of incense fills the cold air.
The temple is non-sectarian, and has been historically open to women when other religious shrines have not. It receives more than eight million visitors annually. And every hour, one of six men emerges to ring the bronze bell in front of the main building. Godo is the boss of that group.
He wore a red turtleneck, tan sweater and blue temple vest the day before the Games began, but donned a working kimono for the opening ceremonies. His ringing of the bell was symbolism at its finest. He has been through the darkness, and seen the light. He has touched the key to paradise, and it is peace.
Pub Date: 2/07/98