Games' `welcome home'

Athens Olympics

August 14, 2004|By Randy Harvey | Randy Harvey,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Greek President Constantinos Stephanopoulos declared the Games of the 28th Olympiad open at 15 minutes before midnight last night, only hours after construction workers put the finishing touches on the magnificently remade Olympic Stadium.

The Greeks' timing was impeccable, exceeded only by their sense of humor.

In a show to entertain the 72,000 people filing into the stadium as they awaited the start of the opening ceremony, five pseudo-construction workers, dressed in blue jumpsuits with hard hats, burst through the tunnel leading to the field and hammered nails into boards.

Later, the crowd was shown a film from the construction projects undertaken in the past four years to build an airport and several stadiums, and improve the train system, roads and other infrastructure. The film was speeded up and set to the syrtaki dance music popularized in the movie Zorba the Greek. The music, like the pace of construction, started slowly, then became frenetic.

The Greeks were finally able to laugh at themselves because they had indeed completed the work required to stage the Summer Olympics, a feat that didn't appear possible when Juan Antonio Samaranch, then-International Olympic Committee president, threatened in 2000 to take away the Games. There were suggestions from IOC members that the Games be moved in 2004 to Los Angeles or Seoul and postponed to 2012 in Athens, when it seemed more likely the city would be ready.

Yet last night organizers presented a four-hour, 15-minute opening ceremony rich in Greek mythology, culture and history, celebrating in particular the ancient Games that began 2,780 years ago in Olympia and the rebirth of the Olympics 108 years ago in Athens.

Addressing the athletes from 202 nations who crowded the field, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the first female president of a local organizing committee, said: "Tonight we are writing a new and beautiful chapter in the history of the Olympic Games. Olympic Games, welcome home."

Not among the athletes on the field after the parade of nations was Michael Phelps, 19, of Rodgers Forge, who could become the star of the Games as he pursues swimmer Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics. Phelps began that pursuit this morning - 3:22 a.m. in Baltimore and 10:22 a.m. here - in the preliminaries of the 400-meter individual medley.

Because of his early start today, he chose to rest in his room at the athletes' village instead of attending the opening ceremony. One of his agents reported that he didn't watch the ceremony on television, falling asleep between 10 and 10:30 p.m.

`This is it'

Other Maryland athletes scheduled to begin competition today are swimmer Katie Hoff of Abingdon; sailors Kevin Hall of Bowie, Liz Filter of Stevensville and Nancy Haberland of Annapolis; and table tennis player Gao Jun of Gaithersburg.

While preparing to go to the stadium for the opening ceremony, the magnitude of the moment almost overcame Filter.

"I've been fine getting processed and going to the gym and training and meeting famous people, but then it hit me and I got all filled with butterflies," she said. "I thought, `Oh my God, this is it.'"

The large U.S. delegation, going by the Greek alphabet, was the 56th to march into the stadium, between the United Arab Emirates and Japan. Outfitted by Roots, a Canadian company, the men wore blue jackets, red shirts and blue sweat pants, and the women wore blue jackets, red blouses and blue skirts. They all wore the blue berets popular at the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City. The flag was carried by three-time Olympian Dawn Staley, a basketball player for the WNBA's Charlotte Sting.

The U.S. athletes were relatively subdued, having been warned by U.S. Olympic Committee officials not to draw attention to themselves lest they attract a negative reaction because of the United States' foreign policy. The USOC didn't raise the flag over the U.S. headquarters at the Olympic Village until six days after athletes began arriving.

A corporate sponsor is providing all U.S. athletes with video cameras but waited until after the opening ceremony so that they wouldn't be so occupied with them that they would fall out of line during the parade of nations.

Lurking politics

Still, even though the U.S. athletes entered the stadium to large applause, there were some derisive whistles as they marched around the field.

The only other delegation that received as many whistles was Turkey, a longtime rival of Greece. During the portion of the ceremony devoted to Greece's 3,000-year history, the more than three centuries that the country was under the rule of Turkey's Ottoman Empire were conveniently left out.

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