- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

ATHENS — Say this for the much-maligned Greeks: Last night’s Olympic opening ceremony did not include Yanni, gyros or irritating what’s-her-face from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Better still, Gene Simmons and his pneumatic tongue — ahem, Salt Lake City — were nowhere to be seen.

Also, the stadium lights stayed on. Big ups for that.

Otherwise, the Games’ opening number was par for the course. In other words, utterly ridiculous.

Over the next two weeks, the Olympics will provide unparalleled human drama, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Not to mention the agony of slipping up on the pommel horse.

Last night, on the other hand, Athens gave us flaming arrows. A half-man, half-machine, lightsaber-wielding Centaur. Best wishes from the crew of the International Space Station. All set to headache-inducing trance music. Bubsy Berkley would be proud. Siegfried and Roy should take notes. Or just lobby for Tiger-riffic inclusion when the Games hit Beijing.

Yes, there’s something about the Olympic opener that brings out the silly side in people — even more so than the Super Bowl halftime show, a kindred kitsch-fest that is mostly good at bringing out people’s nipples.

Consider Seoul, where organizers released dozens of peace doves, only to see them fricasseed in the Olympic flame cauldron. Or take Los Angeles, where Lionel Richie sang “All Night Long,” a man with a jetpack rocketed into the Coliseum and Bomber the Bald Eagle died of vascular collapse before he could ever participate. Perhaps to his feathery credit.

Salt Lake is best (worst?) remembered for the “Child of Light” — a precious little boy who by now is probably finishing his third stay in rehab, if not taping a segment for “E! True Hollywood Story.”

Athens offered some semi-familiar campy elements. The pre-show was hosted by what looked like Greece’s answer to Jessica Simpson — perhaps in the hope that a busty blonde would keep the crowd’s attention on a distressingly steamy evening — and a fellow who may have been the Grecian Ricky Martin.

Martin-oupolous kicked off the main event, to great applause, by banging a hammer against the ground, grinning all the while. Maybe it was some sort of Greek tradition; maybe he was driving the final nail into the much-delayed stadium.

Designed by a globe-spanning panel of artistes, the entire affair reportedly cost more than $25million — Euros in the bucket, considering the Games as a whole are $1.7billion over budget. And no mind: You can’t put a price on true art, let alone the magical soundscapes of DJ Tiesto, who is actually a real person. We checked.

Things began with a boy in a boat sailing across the infield lake. (What is it with little boys and Olympic ceremonies? Is Michael Jackson getting input?) Next came the aforementioned Centaur, whose glowing rod summoned some sort of gray monolith from the depths of the stadium.

Painted with geometric laser light patterns, the monolith recalled a Pink Floyd concert, sans the giant inflatable pigs. Suddenly, the vision made sense: That wasn’t a lightsaber. That was a glow bong. And more than a bit ironic — why would an event obsessed with doping control tailor its opening act to stoners, particularly when Taco Bell isn’t an official Olympic sponsor?

Later the monolith gave way, Russian doll-style, to reveal a decapitated torso. Followed by a half-naked guy floating above a cube. Boxer-brief man was trumped by his high-wire successor, either the Greek god Eros or rejected NBA mascot E-Ros.

At one point, a troupe of actors made up to look like ancient Greek statues and mural paintings paraded around the stadium. One group shimmied in hula hoops. Very curious. Must have glanced over that great Grecian invention while discussing Aristotle in history class.

Anyway, the whole production was all very profound, and just goes to show, there’s a reason most artists are starving. In fairness, the show was much better than Atlanta’s disastrous spin of the wheel — which makes sense, considering Greek cultural history doesn’t begin and end with six-packs, monster trucks and HOW Y’ALL DOIN’?

The traditional march of nations was predictably entertaining, if only for the fashion statements:

• St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Bermuda shorts, black jeans, visors. Wait, you mean the party starts with the closing ceremony?

• Argentina: Khakis and white button-downs. Hi, my name is Tom. I’m here for the database maintenance convention.

• Brazil: Lime-green blazers. So what if we look like Key Lime Pie. Have you seen the women in our country?

• Angola: Banners with a hammer-and-sickle replacing the letter “G.” Yup, they still make us. Ask Cuba.

• Germany: Light green suits and straw hats. We’re cuddly. Honest.

• Denmark: Red polos, khaki shorts. Actually, we would like to buy some Gap socks to go with our purchase.

When everything was said and done, Greek windsurfing medalist Nikolaos Kaklamanakis sprinted up a large staircase to light the World’s Largest Ballpoint Pen, conveniently doubling as the Olympic Cauldron. Last week, the mobile contraption was stuck in place for four days, prompting a final round of international ridicule; last night, it worked without a hitch. So did the lights, the fireworks, even the lake.

All of which raised a question: If the Greeks could manage something this grand, why couldn’t they put a freaking roof on the Olympic pool?

Speaking of pools, American wonder boy Michael Phelps did not attend the ceremony, preferring to save his strength. He may have had the right idea.

Two days earlier, Athens organizing czar Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said a rehearsal for the evening was so moving — so heartrendingly beautiful — that a mere sound bite couldn’t possibly capture her emotions.

“I could talk for hours about how I feel,” she said, smiling. “I was ready to cry.”

After taking in the real thing, we can safely say she wasn’t alone.

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