Sports Illustrated Commemorative

The surprising appearance of Ali brought together the Greatest with the gaudy and the gargantuan in a mind-boggling opening ceremony.

The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games are one of the most mysterious events in sports, especially since they have so little to do with the actual Games themselves. Green gnomes cavort across a field while their frenetic brethren pound huge drums. It's one big head-scratcher, the Main Street parade on acid. Yet it is the toughest ticket at every Olympics, their most anticipated, if mostly irrelevant, attraction. People who wouldn't know a scull if they were whacked upside the head with an oar wouldn't miss the opening ceremonies.

Ali, opening ceremony

The surprising appearance of Ali brought together the Greatest with the gaudy and the gargantuan in a mind-boggling opening ceremony.

photographs by, from left,
Peter Read Miller, Richard Mackson, V.J. Lovero

This one was no easier to understand than other recent opening ceremonies. Being American, they were, of course, longer, bigger and busier—an English translation of Citius, altius, fortius. A horrific apparatus with a chrome beak moved across Atlanta's Olympic Stadium, mowing down a field of butterflies. What to make of that? People examine these productions for their societal symbols, clues to a civilization. Pity the anthropologist who has to divine some cultural meaning from a parade of 30 pickup trucks, 500 cheerleaders and 24 cloggers.

There may have been an underlying theme, located somewhere between Pindar and the Pipsless Gladys Knight, between an homage to Martin Luther King Jr. and the formation of dancers that spelled out how y'all doin'? Hard to pin down, though, even if you were watching on TV, getting NBC's interpretation of events. For everything that had Olympic resonance—a diorama of archers and wrestlers, their shadows thrown onto scrims—there was an assemblage of characters right out of an animation cel. The fabulosity factor was high.

smiling young dancerss

Olympic Stadium's field was transformed into a bloomin' sea of smiling young dancers during the four-hour fabathon.

photograph by
Al Tielemans

Maybe only the athletes, the 11,000 competitors from 197 countries who entered the stadium to a prolonged fanfare, could understand this imagination run amok. Maybe they could watch Muhammad Ali, Olympic class of 1960, trembling terribly as he held out the torch, and see not the shackles of his palsy but the unfettered spirit of his Olympic youth, their youth. He was once quite a piece of work, every night an opening ceremony of his own creation. So maybe this spectacle made sense to the athletes. Could you turn the field into a river and create catfish to pull a 19-foot-high steamboat? Could you lift three times your weight? Neither has a practical application, but it's interesting, every two years or so, to see it done.

Ali, opening ceremony

Voguing was de rigueur as athletes garbed in everything from Kuwaiti dishdashas (above) to American Samoan lavalavas (lower right), Dutch carrottops (center) and the regalia of 194 other nations said hello to Atlanta—and to each other.

photographs by
V.J. Lovero (8), Bill Frakes (2), John Biever,
Walter Iooss Jr., Peter Read Miller

SI Olympic Commemorative
Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17

Olympic Daily Photo
Galleries Features from SI Olympic
Commemorative CNN/SI