SALT LAKE CITY Amid an atmosphere of joyous celebration, solemn remembrance and unprecedented security, the Salt Lake City Olympics opened last night with pageantry, patriotism and a welcome from President Bush.
“On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games,” Mr. Bush said, departing from the traditional Olympic declaration to include a patriotic preface. Mr. Bush was the first American president to open a Winter Olympics.
After an elaborate ceremony that lasted more than two hours, the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal hockey team lit the ceremonial Olympic Cauldron at a chilly Rice-Eccles Stadium, beginning the first Winter Games in the United States in 22 years.
At those Games, at Lake Placid, N.Y., the U.S. hockey team defeated a Soviet squad in the “Miracle on Ice,” one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.
Though the Olympics are intended to promote international peace and solidarity, last night’s proceedings were overshadowed by the aftermath of September 11.
In an emotional moment before the traditional parade of nations, eight U.S. athletes surrounded by New York firefighters, police and Port Authority officers carried the tattered American flag found at ground zero into the stadium.
Mark Grimmette, a luger from Lake Placid, was among the U.S. athletes carrying the flag.
“It’s pretty special for me,” said Grimmette, who competed this season with a sticker remembering September 11 on his sled. “That particular flag doesn’t only represent the United States. It represents all the victims who were at the World Trade Center.”
Mr. Bush assorted dignitaries who included U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and some 52,000 spectators were greeted by the tightest security in Olympic history, a $300 million-plus effort that will cover all 17 days of the Games.
Before the ceremonies, long lines snaked backward from metal detector-equipped checkpoints set up around the stadium. On the ground, police, Secret Service, FBI and armed National Guard troops kept watch. Above, Black Hawk helicopters and F-16 fighter jets patrolled a ring of restricted airspace measuring 90 nautical miles.
The ground zero flag was the subject of an impassioned debate earlier in the week because the U.S. Olympic Committee wanted the flag to be carried in by the American athlete delegation.
Citing strict rules that prohibit political displays during the march of nations, the International Olympic Committee balked at the USOC proposal but later agreed to allow the flag to be carried in separately and raised next to the Olympic Cauldron as the official American flag.
“New Yorkers feel a lot of pride,” said U.S. figure skater Sarah Hughes, a native of New York state who trains in Hackensack, N.J. “A lot of people I know were upset when they weren’t going to let the flag in the stadium. It should be a part of [the ceremonies].”
During the parade of nations, which began with Greece and ended with the United States, four-time Olympic short-track speed skater Amy Peterson carried the U.S. flag into the stadium. Peterson’s uncle, Gene Sandvig, was a member of the 1952 and 1956 Olympic speed-skating teams.
“It’s just the greatest honor,” she said before the ceremony. “And to carry the flag in a situation like this, after September 11, is an even greater honor.”
Jim Shea Jr., a third-generation Olympian, gave the traditional Athletes’ Oath. Shea’s grandfather, Jack, gave the same oath at the 1932 Lake Placid Games before winning a pair of gold medals.
The moment was tinged with sadness for the younger Shea because his grandfather, 91, was killed in a car crash near Lake Placid on Jan. 22, just weeks before he planned to watch his grandson compete in the sport of skeleton.
“My grandfather did the same thing in 1932,” Shea said before the ceremony. “It’s special to me right now because of his passing.”
As they marched into the stadium, American athletes waved, smiled and captured the moment on handheld camcorders, by now an Olympic tradition.
“It’s a lot of fun to wear things with Olympic circles,” Hughes said of competing in the Games. “And it’s so much fun to see all these other athletes. At home, it’s usually just figure skaters and hockey players.”
Before Mr. Bush officially opened the biggest and most expensive Winter Olympics in history consisting of about 2,500 athletes and carrying a price tag of nearly $2 billion spectators were treated to a typically ornate ceremony that teetered between touching and ridiculous.
In an early number, a young boy dubbed “the Child of Light” representing the human spirit, naturally pranced through an allegorical and mostly nonsensical routine.
American Indian dancers performed during a second segment; a third detailed the history of the American West and the state of Utah. Musicians Sting, Yo-Yo Ma and the Dixie Chicks performed, along with 800 ice skaters.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Bush spoke of the ground zero flag at an Olympic reception that included 300 American athletes.
“This flag serves as a symbol of the nation’s grief and of the nation’s resolve,” he said to cheers.
Before shaking the hand of each athlete, Mr. Bush repeated the line that has defined the administration’s struggle against global terrorism.
“Let’s roll,” Mr. Bush said.
Staff writer Joseph Curl contributed to this report.