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A Warm Welcome at the Winter Olympics

By Jennifer Frey and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page D1



 Performers balance themselves on poles as the Onbashira Pillars are raised during the opening ceremonies.
(John Gaps/AP)

NAGANO, Feb. 7 (Saturday) — The bells tolled at 1,400-year-old Zenkoji temple late this morning, and more than 2,400 athletes from 72 countries marched into Minami Nagano Sports Park to mark the opening of the XVIII Olympic Winter Games, the largest and most expensive Winter Games in history.

In a ceremony that featured delicate snow children and gargantuan sumo wrestlers, Andrew Lloyd Webber music and a sharp warning from International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch to observe the Olympic truce, the Japanese welcomed the world to this mid-sized winter village, where hundreds of men and women from around the globe will be anointed new Olympic heroes during the next two weeks.

Led by speedskater Eric Flaim, the U.S. delegation was without some of its biggest Olympic stars — including Michelle Kwan, American's brightest hope in a strong group of female figure skaters — as it entered the stadium waving flags and wearing blue down jackets.

"You try and picture what the Olympics are going to be like and try to be ready for everything," said Fairfax's Michael Weiss, whose father marched in the 1964 ceremonies in Tokyo, and who hopes to win a medal in men's figure skating here. "And I can't expect anything more than this."

Staged under a milky midday sky in an open-air stadium designed to resemble a cherry blossom, today's pageant was a tribute to peace and international cooperation, but one tinged by the growing tension between the United States and Iraq, which has refused to allow unfettered access to United Nations weapons inspectors, prompting American threats of military attack.

Although he did not mention the United States by name, Samaranch issued a blunt appeal to the United States to refrain from taking military action against Iraq during the Olympics. Speaking to the crowd of 50,000, which included Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, as well as a worldwide television audience, Samaranch urged all nations to observe the "Olympic truce" and to "foster international dialogue and diplomatic solutions to all conflicts in an effort to bring human tragedy to an end."

Samaranch's call for worldwide unity was underscored by the ceremony's most poignant moment: a live performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" that spanned five continents. Taking advantage of Japan's cutting-edge technology, Olympic organizers set up long-distance video and audio hook-ups in Berlin, Beijing, Sydney, New York and Cape Town, South Africa, and choral groups from each nation joined singers here in a majestic rendition of the song led by Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa.

The ceremonies themselves reflected a nearly seamless blend of Japanese traditional culture and its modern technological advancement. They opened with the raising of 39-foot tall timbers at each of the four entryways, the timbers representing the gates that mark many of the Japanese Buddhist temples. The stage itself was something of a makeshift sumo ring, and the crowd roared its approval when sumo grand champion Akebono — an American whose real name is Chad Rowan, and who once played basketball at the University of Hawaii — performed the traditional ring-entering ceremony that begins sumo matches, stomping and squatting around the ring in a ritual designed to purify the ground and drive out evil spirits.
 Akebono
 Grand Champion Akebono performs during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics Friday night.
(Joel Richardson/The Post)

Akebono and the 37 other elite sumo wrestlers wore only traditional keshomawashi aprons over their wrestling loincloths, despite the sub-freezing temperatures. And in a stunning contrast, each sumo wrestler joined hands with a Japanese child (referred to by Olympic organizers as "snow children") to lead the delegations from the 72 Olympic nations into the stadium in the traditional parade of athletes.

Like Kwan — who is recovering from a stress fracture in her foot — many of the highest-profile athletes expected to participate in these games were absent from today's ceremony. NHL players — who are participating in the Games for the first time — have yet to arrive, which meant that stars such as Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros and the Washington Capitals' Peter Bondra were not able to participate. Also missing was Picabo Street, America's best hope for a medal in women's skiing. She too is recovering from injury and is scheduled to arrive later today.

The crowd did include some of the newest members of the Olympic community, which added three sports — curling, women's hockey and snowboarding — to its competitions this winter. Adam Hostetter, one member of America's Generation X snowboard crew, joked this week that he needed to practice the words to the U.S. national anthem for the ceremony, and he was grinning as the familiar music played over the stadium loudspeakers today.

With the athletes watching, the snow children accompanied the Olympic flame into the stadium. The cauldron was lit by Midori Ito, the Japanese figure skater whose silver-medal winning performance at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville is still considered a stunning disappointment to the Japanese. Ito, the gold-medal favorite in '92, lost the coveted prize to American Kristi Yamaguchi and made a public apology to her nation when she returned to Japan after the Games. Once so traumatized by her second-place showing that she suffered from eating disorders and anemia, Ito was glowing today, and she was warmly welcomed by her fellow Japanese as she lit the traditional flame while dressed in a flowing kimono and Japanese headdress.

Following the torch-lighting ceremony, the athletes took the Olympic oath and the symbolic doves were released into the sky. That moment was followed by the worldwide chorus's performance of "Ode to Joy," which moved more than a few observers to tears. The 2,000-person Japanese chorus here was joined by stocking-capped singers in Beijing, who stood in their own near-freezing weather, a black-tie chorus at New York's United Nations, groups in South Africa and Berlin (at the Brandenburg Gate), and a contingent that formed the Olympic rings on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney, where the 2000 Olympic Summer Games will take place.

The ceremony ended with a low fly-over by five Japanese fighter jets trailing thick white contrails, which lingered in the sky as spectators filed out of the stadium, and the athletes prepared for the first day of competition. The first scheduled event at the Games is a men's hockey game between Italy and Kazakhstan that will be played this afternoon.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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