While the athletes waited outside, the show in the packed Coliseum—93,000 spectators—went on. (Tickets had gone for as much as $1,000 apiece that afternoon.) The peristyle end had been transformed with magenta, turquoise and white into what seemed a pillared cake supporting the Olympic torch. For an hour and a half the proceedings were sustained by sheer show-biz effort. There were copper kettledrums and bannered trumpets. There were chimes and cannons and crazily sweet flower girls in chiffon gowns and broad, translucent hats. An alarming hiss was the sound of a man strapped to a jetpack, flying in from the columns. He must have replaced poor Bomber. Huge copper and white balloons were released and soon were far up. The Olympic rings were painted by skywriters across a soft blue, copper-flecked sky. A 750-member marching band made an outline of the continental U.S. on the field—Hawaii and Alaska presumably having been consigned to the parking lots—and Hollywood pioneers pulled their wagons west to east, threw up flimsy towns, and danced too long.
There were moments when you wanted the Soviets to see this. One was when 84 baby grand pianos appeared in tiers between the columns, each played by a blue-clad pianist, pouring out Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. There was an astonishing card section—the entire Coliseum crowd—which kind of reluctantly went along with creating, well, the people had no idea what, and then looked up, shocked, to find that they had emblazoned the great bowl with flags representing each of the 140 nations participating in the Games. There were jazzercise dancers and Hollywood musical numbers and big band swing numbers. What all this had to do with sport wasn't to be asked. It was prelude. It was puff. But Rhapsody in Blue gave you goose bumps on the bottoms of your feet. The thing was building.
Then came the athletes' march. Greece, as the ancient originator of the Games, led, followed alphabetically by the other nations. Bahrain won for magnificence, with red and gold gowns and white headdresses. Bermudians wore Bermuda shorts. Australian women had koalas and emus on their dresses. The Eastern European boycott defiers, Romania and Yugoslavia, got ovations, even from the athletes of other countries.
But none was so resounding as that for the immense, 573-member U.S. team, which marched in last. "As we came out of that tunnel into the cheers and flags," said U.S. basketball center Anne Donovan, "those cheers were for me."
No athlete could compare the U.S. reception with any other Olympic experience. "Seventy-six was great," said U.S 4 X 400-meter relay team member Willie Smith. "But this time it's in America.' The American flag was carried by hammer thrower Ed Burke, 44, who kept it high with one hand, reminiscent of Soviet weightlifter Leonid Zhabotinski, who carried his nation's flag in Mexico City in 1968. The U.S. team stretched 150 meters around the track, it's members becoming delirious as the noise mounted. When they at last found places on the infield, four and a half acres were filled with nearly 8,000 athletes.
Ueberroth spoke of the power of sport to advance peace and understanding. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch said, "Our thoughts also go to those athletes who have not been able to join us."
From a bulletproof booth high up in the press box, Ronald Reagan, who had spoken to the U.S. team earlier—"He said everyone has the desire to win," said Wolf, "but you gotta have the desire to prepare, too"—transposed the two phrases of his prescribed 16-word speech, saying, "Celebrating the 23rd Olympiad of the modern era, I declare open the Olympic Games of Los Angeles." Go, get set, on your marks.
Wolf leaned to Burke on the infield and said, "How's the heart, Ed?"
"Racin'," said Burke. "I may not even bother to compete after this. How could I get any higher?"
The Olympic flag was carried in by former U.S. medalists Bruce Jenner, Wyomia Tyus, Parry O'Brien, Al Oerter, Billy Mills, John Naber and Mack Robinson, and Bill Thorpe Jr., grandson of Jim. While a 1,000-voice choir sang the Olympic Hymn, two flights of pigeons wheeled in the perfect golden twilight.