- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

TURIN, Italy — The 20th Winter Olympic Games officially began last night with the usual combination of pomp and pageantry, fire and ice, class and crass.

But this time it was done Italian style, celebrating the nation’s art, culture and history before 35,000 spectators and a worldwide television audience estimated at 2 billion.

The opening ceremony somehow mixed opera with cowbells and Dante with Yoko Ono. There was a lesson in European history together with a giant mosh pit and something described as a “mysterious metal structure” with two dozen dancers and the Olympic rings affixed to it.

Fire and other forms of pyrotechnics spewed everywhere, from the bottom of the stadium to the top and from the back of helmeted figures called the “Sparks of Passion.” That figured. As indicated by the many signs and banners around town, the motto of the Games is “Passion Lives Here.”

One of Italy’s greatest exports, famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti, provided a resounding close to the ceremony at what used to be called Stadio Comunale, a soccer stadium built in the 1930s that was renovated for the Games and renamed, predictably, Stadio Olimpico.

Pavarotti sang the aria “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot.” He is such a commanding figure and his presence seemed so appreciated that he could have hummed “Hail to the Redskins” for all anyone cared.

The floor of the stadium was shaped like a giant Italian piazza (plaza), the center of life in many cities and towns. Unintentionally, it also looked like an oversized guitar.

Ski legend and native daughter Stefania Belmondo, a three-time gold medalist and four-time Olympian, accepted the torch passed on from several great Italian athletes and ignited the flame in a towering cauldron that will burn for the next 16 days.

Speedskater Chris Witty, competing in her fifth Winter Games, carried the American flag and led the U.S. athletes into the stadium. It held a capacity crowd that clanged cowbells and waved flashlights that were handed out and included First Lady Laura Bush. Whether she clanged is unknown.

But it was not a full house for the Americans. Several athletes, citing the unusual distance of the ski events from the city, chose not to participate.

Witty, though, was more than thrilled to be here. She acknowledged she coveted the honor and talked about how much it meant to her. The attention also has helped publicize her fight against child abuse, of which she has admitted she was a victim.

Fashion note: The American athletes were wearing outfits made by Roots, a Canadian-based company.

After the parade of athletes, the words of Dante Alighieri were read. Why him? Dante is the father of the modern Italian language and author of “The Divine Comedy,” describing Dante’s journey through hell, which makes sense considering the fiery displays. That’s why.

That was followed by a production number titled, “From the Renaissance to the Baroque.” It celebrated beauty and art, and Italian actor Adriano Giannini played a prince. Then came a tribute to the Italian “Futurism” movement, not to be confused with “the future,” which also was noted. It was kind of out there.

Representing the host city were 500 young people who formed, in mass choreography, a giant ski jumper. It was impressive, but given some of the transportation problems here, a more appropriate symbol might have been a bus being driven in the wrong direction making three U-turns, causing two accidents and ending up where it started.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, welcomed the athletes and implored, “Please compete in a spirit of fair play, mutual understanding and respect and, above all, compete cleanly by refusing doping.”

The president of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, uttered those much-awaited words, “I declare open the 20th Olympic Winter Games in Torino,” and then for the first time, the Olympic flag was carried only by women. It was an eclectic group of eight — Italian actress Sophia Loren, American actress Susan Sarandon and Latin American writer Isabel Allende, plus an environmentalist, a human rights activist and former Olympic athletes.

Yoko Ono, wife of late Beatle John Lennon, read an ode to peace, followed by vocalist Peter Gabriel singing Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine.”

But no matter how lavish, overproduced or just plain weird these ceremonies can get, there always are some moving moments: When the home team is introduced last, the stadium erupts, as it did last night in Turin.

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