And then the torch. It was carried into the stadium by Gina Hemphill, Jesse Owens's granddaughter. Of all of the traditional symbols, the torch is the most potent. It represents the ancient fire passed down, 2,760 years since the first Olympics in Greece, and it drew the athletes irresistibly. "That's when I cried," said Donovan.
In surges, athletes broke ranks and pressed onto the track. Hemphill was forced to slide and weave to get down the backstretch. She isn't a highly trained runner. It seemed she might not make it. When the Olympians closed in, you saw her only by the light she raised. The moment was dramatic to the point of seeming surreal. When she ran free of the crowd, the stadium sighed in relief.
After a lap, she handed the flame to 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, who ran to the peristyle end, mounted the permanent steps, and then, powerfully, with his left hand steadying him, for he had slipped and almost fallen in practice, continued up a further flight of stairs that rose from the top of the steps. At the apex of his climb, he turned and saluted the stadium with the torch. "He was like a god up there," said Canadian decathlete Dave Steen.
Johnson ignited a fuse above his head, and the fire was carried to the Olympic rings and on up to the main torch. And the reaction then, over such a simple thing as a leaping flame, isn't easily understood, even if profoundly experienced. Perhaps international sport becomes more precious as other instruments of peace are seen to be withdrawn. Perhaps the flame's power is in its affirming our ability to grasp something good that transcends our own lifetimes.
The athletes' and officials' oaths were taken, Edwin Moses drawing a moment's blank that had the crowd aching for him before he finished. No one spoke extraordinarily well in this ceremony. The effect of it came from other than words.
From music, yes, Beethoven's Ode to Joy seems always a fine summation of this delicate rejoining of the world, of the elation that flows from having once more achieved it. But in no Olympic opening has that elation been carried to greater heights than in Los Angeles. Urged in song to "reach out and touch," the athletes began to join hands, to form lines. A wing of white doves, saved for last, flew in the same sky as a pair of menacing black helicopters.
Concussive fireworks cannonaded overhead. Irish male athletes danced a jig. Canadian women formed a cancan line. Italian men ran to kiss women of the choir. "You couldn't keep people apart," said an exultant Antonio McKay, the U.S. 400-meter hope. "All the other countries were grabbing each other, squeezing each other. It just moved me like nothing else in this world."
"There has never been anything like this," said U.S. high jumper Dwight Stones. "I stayed as long as I could, just to soak up the energy." The British and Brazilians danced so fiercely it looked dangerous. "It was more like a closing ceremony than an opening," said U.S. triple jumper Willie Banks. "Everyone radiated fantastic love and friendship." The teams didn't regroup well at all. U.S. basketball player Sam Perkins could be seen doing a short high five with a gowned and turbaned Sudanese. "It kept on and on," said U.S. sprinter Harvey Glance. "The athletes haven't had this for years."
"It actually is a little disconcerting," said 1976 Olympic discus champion Mac Wilkins of the U.S., sort of at bay, surrounded by an excited Hawaiian dance troupe. "There has to be something to look forward to. This seems like the last day of the world, but we have some heavy business to tend to before we go completely wild. But hey, I'm not ready to leave, yet." He seemed to be trying to continue, but was quite submerged in hugs, drowned out in squeals.
McKay was marveling nearby. "You wait," he said. "This is going to charge us up and set us free. You're going to see some great performances now."