• U.S.


7 minute read
Steve Wulf/Atlanta

When the five huge clusters of percussion were pushed onto the field by strange creatures in corresponding colors of red, black, blue, yellow and green, the reaction of the 83,000 people gathered in Olympic Stadium Friday evening was not unlike that of the world when the Games of the XXVI Olympiad were first awarded to Atlanta back in 1990. Namely, Huh?

But then the glaring sun disappeared over the shoulders of the trumpeters on the crest of the stadium, the countdown to the opening ceremony picked up steam (Athens 1896, Paris 1900…Barcelona 1992), and the show was under way. In moments the stadium found itself sheathed in fabric of the five Olympic colors as members of five different tribes poured out and flew down onto the field. Little white sprites appeared, dancing to the irresistible beat and weaving their way through the tribes. Out of the delirious chaos came a formation, and presto, the tribes became the Olympic rings, and then the children became a huge white dove. All of it–the sprites, the tribesmen, the huge drums, Atlanta–all of it suddenly made perfect sense. Until Friday night the 1996 Summer Games merely belonged to this town. When the 4-hr. opening ceremony ended Saturday morning, millions of skeptics had become believers that the Olympics also belonged in Atlanta.

Even before the Games officially opened, the city was paving over the doubts and wiring up the excitement. Oh, traffic was often a mess, and the sidewalks became a flea market, but Atlanta seemed genuinely happy and gracious about welcoming the world. The City Too Busy to Hate was also too busy to wring its hands over the horrific tragedy of TWA Flight 800. The security presence was so large to begin with, some 30,000 strong, that added measures were hardly noticed. The safety concern manifested itself mainly as an added line of questioning at press conferences. Worries about the heat were diminished by bearable (92û) temperatures, and the threat of thunderstorms on Friday evening gave way to clear skies.

The mood was decidedly upbeat for the upscale holders of tickets–at $636 for a good seat–even though they endured long lines at the security checkpoints. A few hours before the ceremonies Kristin Mathis, a 16-year-old member of the Carolina Youth Dance Theater, was overjoyed at the prospect of being a moon attendant in the elaborate Summertime number: “I mean, we once performed at the county fair, but this is the biggest, greatest thing ever.” The blending of small town and wide world is what has already given these Olympics a special flavor. One Atlanta woman remarked the first time one of the two official Olympic languages came over the public address system, “I believe that’s the first time French has been spoken in a Georgia stadium.” Yet thanks to native son Jimmy Carter, who helped persuade North Korea to come, the 1996 Atlanta Games are the first in the 100-year history of the Olympics to gather every nation on earth. Nowadays, that’s 197 delegations, or as the Parade of Nations would demonstrate, two hours’ worth of athletes.

The show, produced by Don Mischer, performed by a cast of 5,500 and watched by 3 billion viewers worldwide, mixed Southern with Greek, pyrotechnics with Pindar, avant-garde with antebellum, pickup trucks with riverboats, the gargantuan with the precious. Like Atlanta, it desperately wanted to be liked by everybody, and it succeeded. The Call to the Nations, which opened the show, recalled both the French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil, which was a creative consultant, as well as a Brazilian samba school. Yet the two songs were written by two distinctly American composers: Summon the Heroes by Academy Award winner John Williams and The Call to the Nations by Mickey Hart, the drummer for The Grateful Dead. For the national ceremony that followed, the music went to a moving gospel version of The Star-Spangled Banner by the 300-strong Centennial Choir.

A 9-min. segment called Welcome to the World was the next big number, and it too had everything: 30 pickup trucks; 300 members of a marching band; an assortment of 374 cloggers, steppers and precision dancers; 500 cheerleaders and 83,000 audience participants, including the members of the First Family, who did the wave as per rehearsal instructions. The chrome-plated trucks, which provided lighting around the field, were the most controversial part of the program because 1) they were Chevy trucks, and commercialism is taboo during the ceremonies; and 2) they supposedly fostered the redneck stereotype of the South. But as Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and American ambassador to the U.N. who helped bring the Games to the South, pointed out, trucks are also utility vehicles driven by people of all colors. Labels be damned, the Welcome dancers at one point spelled out in flash cards, HOW Y’ALL DOIN’?

Then came the quietest moment of the ceremonies, just the old sweet song of Georgia on My Mind, performed by Gladys Knight. She in turn gave way to the new, sweet, if somewhat pretentious Summertime allegory, which featured giant puppets, a riverboat and 440 butterflies, not to mention quotes from Zora Neal Hurston, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner.

The one consistent thread running throughout the ceremonies was reverence for the Olympic ideal, and it became a full tapestry in the Tradition of the Games sequence. A Greek temple rose up from the field and was then shrouded in white to give it the effect of a magic lantern. Next, giant silhouettes of classical Greek athletes appeared–archers, wrestlers, javelin and discus throwers, runners–and the crowd gasped as one. It truly was a beautiful sequence, connecting the ancient with the present.

Then came the Parade of Nations, part fashion show (grass skirts and blazers), part geography lesson (the Comoros?), part expression that all is forgiven (Saddam Hussein’s son heads the tiny Iraqi delegation). The parade lasted far longer than expected, but finally the U.S. delegation came out, led by 286-lb. wrestler Bruce Baumgartner, who made flag carrying look ridiculously easy, and trailed by Shaquille O’Neal, whose new $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t exactly what Baron de Coubertin had in mind.

The Olympics are rightfully criticized for their commercialism, but from the time the American delegation proceeded down the ramp, NBC went an hour without a commercial. Indeed, the ceremonies went by in a flash: the remarks by Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games president Billy Payne and International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch (“Atlanta, here we are!”), the proclamation (“I declare open the Games of Atlanta!”) by President Clinton, the entrance of the Olympic flag, a tribute to Atlanta’s Rev. Martin Luther King, the introduction of past Olympians.

Then came the climax of the torch lighting. The final Olympic torchbearer had been a closely guarded secret. Two former Olympians, American boxer Evander Holyfield and Greek track star Voula Patoulidou, ran around the track together and handed off to U.S. swimmer Janet Evans. She ran up the ramp and passed the torch to a large man emerging from the shadows. As Cassius Clay, he had won the light-heavyweight gold medal in Rome, and as Muhammad Ali, he became the most famous athlete in the world. But a lifetime of blows has left him with Parkinson’s syndrome and robbed him of his quick wit and physical skills. So when Ali bravely took the torch and, with a trembling arm, lit the wick, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. The fire then traveled up a guy wire to the cauldron atop Olympic Stadium.

Flame once devastated the city. Shortly after midnight, flame filled Atlanta with unspeakable joy.

–With reporting by Barry Hillenbrand and Susanna Schrobsdorff/Atlanta

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