- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

ATHENS — The Olympic Games have finally come home.

Brushing aside a troubled, oft-torturous run-up, the Athens Games opened last night with a theatrical flourish of pomp and pageantry, protected by the largest security effort in Olympic history.

Greek windsurfing medalist Nikolaos Kaklamanakis capped an elaborate ceremony by lighting the cauldron at steamy Olympic Stadium, returning the Games to the place of their ancient birth and modern revival.

“Citizens of the world, for the second time in 108 years, Greece stands before you as the host of the greatest celebration of humanity,” said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Games’ organizing committee. “Olympic Games, welcome home.”

For Greece, the evening was a long time coming. Athens hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, renewing an athletic tradition that extends to 776B.C. Yet preparations for this year’s Games were beset by dithering and delays, prompting worldwide criticism and a stinging rebuke from the International Olympic Committee.

Chastened, Greece redoubled its efforts. Crews labored around the clock, widening roads and finishing stadiums. A new mass transit system went fully on line this summer; as recently as last week, workmen were installing seat numbers at the Olympic aquatic center.

The result? Organizers claim all 35 venues are ready to host 10,000-plus athletes over the next two weeks — in fact, some soccer matches already have been played — and last night’s grandiose production went off in hitchless fashion.

Music thumped. Laser lights flashed. For much of the ceremony, the stadium floor was partially flooded. Nothing leaked.

“I think the first gold medal has been won already,” said Peter Ueberroth, U.S. Olympic Committee chair and czar of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. “It’s been won by the Greek organizing committee and the people of Greece.”

Spectators were greeted by the most elaborate Olympic security umbrella yet devised, a $1.5billion effort designed to protect the first Summer Games since September11 and the bombings in Madrid. Outside the barrier-ringed stadium, soldiers and armed police patrolled on foot, part of a 70,000-person force that includes United States security agents and NATO air surveillance.

“I don’t care how tough you are, you’re going to be a little scared,” said Shawn Marion, a forward on a U.S. basketball team that recently competed in Serbia and Turkey. “But they’re not going to put us in danger. We’ve had armored cars, guards everywhere we go. Security like the President.”

The parade of nations, which began with Saint Lucia, ended with Greece and featured the two Koreas marching together and three-time Olympian Dawn Staley carrying the American flag into the stadium.

Staley, a University of Virginia graduate, is a two-time gold medalist with the U.S. women’s basketball team who in 1996 carried the Olympic torch up the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“It’s an honor,” Staley said beforehand. “It might be an out-of-body experience for me. But I will certainly do it with dignity.”

In previous Olympic openers, the American contingent often marched in loose, gregarious fashion, brandishing cell phones and handicams. This time around, Greek organizers and USOC officials asked them march in rows of eight — in part for security reasons, in part to keep the evening on schedule.

“They want me to march in a single line? Put on a sweatshirt in 100 degree heat? I don’t care,” said U.S. basketball player Richard Jefferson, who fittingly held a camera. “I’m just here to play basketball.”

Though some feared a negative crowd reaction given American actions in Iraq and elsewhere — a springtime poll put President Bush’s Greek approval rating at 5 percent — the U.S. athletes received warm greetings.

Missing from the American procession was Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps, who is aiming to tie or surpass Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics. Phelps swims his first races tomorrow and decided to rest.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Phelps said a day earlier. “Once every four years you get the opportunity to be on the Olympic team. Being back here where it all started? Wow. It’s an exciting time, a great city.”

Before Greek president Constantinos Stephanopoulos officially opened an event expected to cost as much as $7.2billion, attendees enjoyed a predictably showy panoply.

A small child in a boat — not to be confused with Salt Lake City’s “child of light” — sailed across the infield lake. Fireworks and lasers lit up a cascading spray of water. Suspended by wires, a man in a purple suit pinwheeled above a procession of actors painted to look like classical statues.

During the pre-show, a short film even poked fun at the foot-dragging that dogged preparations for the Games.

“[Greece] has defied most reasonable persons thinking they wouldn’t be ready,” Ueberroth said. “They’re ready, thank you very much.”

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