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Showbiz, hype reign at opening ceremonies

Posted: Monday July 19, 2004 8:28PM; Updated: Monday July 19, 2004 8:28PM
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LONDON, July 19 (Reuters) -- By a supreme effort of will, Muhammad Ali steadied his hand to light the Olympic cauldron.

Trembling with Parkinson's Syndrome, the 20th century's most famous sportsman offered the perfect emotion-charged finale to the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

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At every Games national pride is at stake. Each host city wants to put on the biggest show on earth with billions of people watching as the curtain rises on the Games.

Organisers are looking for that elusive magic moment among the interminable parades of athletes, massed ranks of cheesy dancers and fireworks that seem to go on forever.

Los Angeles has a lot to answer for.

It spent millions on a riotously over-the-top opening ceremony for the 1984 Games that turned the Coliseum into a camp Hollywood spectacular.

Lionel Richie invited everyone to party "All Night Long," 84 grand pianos played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and a spaceman whooshed into the stadium on a jet-powered back pack like James Bond on a rescue mission.

The lofty ideals of French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the modern Olympics, have long been forgotten.

Ali was the picture of dignity in Atlanta. The show was not. "Corporate over-kill and over-the-top glitter" was one critic's caustic conclusion.

Who could forget 30 chrome pick-up trucks circling the field in a bizarre echo of the chariot races that launched the Ancient Olympics. A formation of dancers spelled out "HOW Y'ALL DOIN?"

PERFECT CLIMAX

Lighting the flame offers the perfect climax to the opening ceremony and each city tries to top the last for originality.

At the 1992 Barcelona Games, archer Antonio Rebollo, disabled by polio as a child, fired a blazing arrow over the Olympic tower to ignite the flame.

Opera tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras stamped a Spanish flavour on the ceremony. Flamenco dancers led by a woman rider on a jet black horse clacked their castanets en masse.

In Seoul, the spotlight fell on 76-year-old Sohn Kee-Chung, winner of the 1936 marathon and the perfect national symbol to carry the torch into the stadium.

In 1936 he had been forced to enter the marathon using a Japanese name because Korea was then occupied by Japan.

In Sydney, the Australians bid "G'Day" to the world with a moving gesture of national reconciliation as Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman, who later landed the 400 metre gold medal, lit the Olympic flame.

"You Bloody Beauty. We fair dinkum knocked them dead on that one," declared the Sydney Morning Herald.

Freeman lit the cauldron in the heart of a cascading waterfall although the hi-tech spectacular nearly gave the organisers a mass heart attack.

The cauldron that was to lift the Olympic flame high over Stadium Australia stuck for three very, very long minutes before finally rising to the occasion.

Indeed, opening ceremonies can be remembered as much for the glitches as for the triumphs.

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, doves of peace rose into the sky. But the birds met the flame and suddenly Olympic organisers had a bird barbecue on their consciences.

Also spare a thought for poor Bomber the bald eagle who never even made it to the Los Angeles opening ceremony.

While training for his big moment, the American symbol collapsed and died. An autopsy revealed that the bird, like so many of his compatriots, was severely overweight and had died of vascular collapse.

Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote his epitaph: "Bomber the eagle is dead. But let us not mourn. The Olympics will carry on. Bomber would have wanted it that way."

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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