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An Opening, and Maybe a Beginning

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page D1

Michael Wilbon

NAGANO — Every Olympic Games, the night before the Opening Ceremonies, I turn into the world's biggest cynic, going on and on about how corny and mushy and overly theatrical the whole thing is, wondering whether we need to spend this much time watching people dance around arenas dressed as snowflakes or gargoyles.

And every time, five minutes into every opening ceremony, I realize I'd been a complete fool, that if the sporting world needs anything in abundance it's corny, mushy, overly theatrical efforts directing more folk toward sportsmanship and tolerance and, yes, peace. There aren't many breaks in the sporting calendar for the sappy stuff like goodwill and harmony. The Olympics, particularly the opening ceremony, are one of the corniest, coolest, most innocent reminders we've got, and the only event the entire world shares before going back to the business of the Games, the training, the medal counts, the marketing, the self-absorption.

You know the best thing about the Nagano ceremonies here Saturday morning? The waving. It's not much in the scheme of "Highlights at 11 p.m." and "Play of the Day" and flying dunks and hockey fights. But when the Japanese athletes walked into this arena, every single one of them waving furiously and a standing audience waving back, it became pretty damn warm at the foot of the snow-covered Japanese Alps.

It was cool when they gathered at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at 3 a.m. with the temperature around freezing, at the Sydney Opera House in Australia's summer heat, at the Shenwomen Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing, at False Bay in Cape Point, South Africa, and inside the Hall of Nations at the United Nations in New York City, with 1,000 people outside the stadium and 2,000 inside singing "Ode to Joy." It's even cooler that it was technologically possible for the first time to uplink more than two countries simultaneously.

It was cool when that guy from Bermuda, the only one from Bermuda, carried the flag while wearing Bermuda shorts in 35-degree weather.

It was very cool when 1,000 people pulled up those 4,000-pound, 39-foot-long, 150-year-old timbers with climbers steadying themselves at the top to form the "gates" for the athletes to enter. It's a traditional festival-opening they use in this region to symbolize "All Pulling Together," "Pooling Your Strength," "Keeping Free From Injury," "Striving Together," "In Full Harmony" and "Through and Through."

It was even cooler when Motoichi Goudo — "Mr. Goudo," we call him to his face — rang the 331-year-old bronze bell at the main temple at Zenkoji Temple to start these XVIII Winter Olympic Games.

Mr. Goudo's a pretty cool guy all by himself, and quite a symbol of peace in his own right. He was scheduled to make a kamikaze mission in 1945, but the United States bombed Hiroshima the day before his mission, thus saving Mr. Goudo's life. The reports of how long he has been ringing that bell at the Zenkoji Temple vary; some say 30 years. Mr. Goudo doesn't speak a lot of English but he said to a couple of American visitors Friday afternoon, "One more day . . . I am up there," and he pointed to the heavens, indicating of course his life would have ended with that kamikaze mission.

It's quite fitting that the world of sports should celebrate peace at an Olympics in Japan, because this is a country that has evolved dramatically since Pearl Harbor. You know how many murders- by-gunfire there were here in 1996? A total of 17. Not in Nagano, not in Tokyo, but in the nation of Japan. That's 17 — 10 plus 7. Not in a weekend, as we would have in some U.S. cities, nor in a month. A whole year. The murder total for the year was twenty-something.

Japan is far from perfect, but when you see 10-year-old children riding the subway alone with no safety concerns whatsoever, you have to hope something will rub off on every athlete, every coach and Olympic official, everybody here who could spread that kind of goodwill.

The theme of peace through these Games is everywhere you look, beginning with little children running through the Temple grounds flashing the "V" sign. I'm still trying to figure out, though, how the entire sumo wrestling thing fits in here. Okay, I know, I'm about to get cynical again. But marching 6-foot-8, 516-pound Akebono into the center of the arena for a couple of those moves where it looks like he's raising his leg at a fireplug seems to run counter to everything else here. I guess the national organizing committee couldn't help but flex a little bit and trotting out sumo wrestlers, which is about as macho as you can get in Asia.

But let me dispel something about the sumos: They ain't that big. Seriously. Other than Akebono and a couple of super, super sumos, the overwhelming number of sumo wrestlers I've seen are smaller than, well, me. Big for us in the United States and big for Japan ain't the same thing. Half the sumos I stood next to before the ceremony don't come up to my chin. There's not a good left tackle-size dude in the bunch other than the incomparable Akebono, and he's a Hawaiian guy named Chad Rowan. What a scam he's got going! Personally, I'll take the Packers' Gilbert Brown in two-out-of-three falls against 99 percent of these guys.

But for this one day, it wasn't sumos who ruled. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber's "When Children Rule the World." And fittingly, what we're looking for these next 16 days is for the childlike spirit and excitement to rule the sporting world, no matter how corny it might sound today.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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