Greeks ready, after all

ATHENS -- As a setting sun bathed the sky over Athens in salmon-pink splendor Friday night, the dawn of another chapter in Olympic history was about to begin -- in a stadium, in a city, indeed, in a country that skeptics worldwide never imagined would be ready for this defining moment for Greece.

The opening of the 2004 Summer Games, which marks the final 17 days of the 28th Olympiad of a modern era begun when Athens was host to the first Games in 1896, offered a dramatic confirmation of what organizers and government officials have declared for weeks and months -- that Athens is, after years of turmoil, a legitimate host city.

Friday's production inside the long scrutinized Athens Olympic Stadium had been billed as a celebration of Greek history and tradition, balanced with a dramatic depiction of humanity's journey and a tribute to the evolution of the modern Games.

The show, featuring 4,000 performers, used 23 miles of steel cable and 1,592 moving lights, and began with a 571,000-gallon lake as its focal point. The temporary lake took six hours to fill and three minutes to drain -- a disparity not unlike Athens' Games, which took more than three years of frenzied effort to prepare for though they'll be a memory in just slightly more than two weeks.

Organizers set the parade order based on the Greek alphabet, which made the 538 athletes and a handful of others from the United States delegation the 56th of 202 teams to enter the stadium. U.S. Olympic Committee officials had gone out of their way to admonish athletes to present themselves with order and dignity amid growing worldwide opposition to U.S. military occupation of Iraq and anti--American sentiments.

Dressed in primarily navy blue casual apparel created by Canadian apparel maker Roots, featuring a stylized pageboy cap designed to be worn "backward," the largest delegation of the night made its journey without incident. Ironically, the parade order found the Americans following the oil, as usual. Team USA walked in behind the United Arab Emirates.

Members of the professional U.S. men's basketball team, which many feared would be at risk here even in an ultra-secured environment, came in at the tail end of the delegation, trailed only by a final row of four USOC officials including director of security Larry Buendorf, a former presidential Secret Service agent.

While Greece has been staggered by escalating costs, no figure has received more attention than its estimated $1.5 billion security bill. Yet visible security was minimal on Friday night immediately outside or inside the stadium. Members of the global accredited media working at the Games were surprised to discover that a second layer of bag searches at the entry to Olympic Park were suspended for the evening. As thousands of print and photo media entered the immediate vicinity of the Olympic Stadium, credentials were scrutinized at four different checkpoints but never scanned.

Beneath the stadium, the tunnel through which thousands of athletes were led in was populated mostly by volunteer workers and few security personnel but no visible armed military or police.

Five minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the now familiar security blimp was positioned for a few moments directly over the stadium. The blimp contains state of the art audio and video surveillance equipment that can pinpoint people or specific conversations from thousands of feet above the ground.

As the evening progressed, the blimps' eye saw a roaring ovation for the delegation from Iraq, which numbered about 20; a somber call from International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge to the assembled to "show us that sport unites" in a troubled world; the towering presence of NBA player Yao Ming leading China's delegation, which included white-haired American basketball coach Del Harris walking amid a sea of dark-haired Chinese athletes; and a Russian cosmonaut and American astronaut greeting spectators from 360 kilometers in space.

"For years, Greece was considered a country of history, of heritage," Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said earlier this week. "I dare say it was not considered a nation of new achievements."

Addressing the 75,000 spectators and a global television audience projected to surpass 4 billion viewers on Friday, Angelopoulos--Daskalaki, whose arrival as head of the organization in 2000 is credited with saving Greece from potential disgrace, said Athens looks forward to the days of competition ahead with "a sense of solemn pride and responsibility."

Friday night's 3½-hour ceremony was greeted by moderate temperatures despite intense sunshine and heat that reached 100 degrees earlier. A similar series of contrasts played out as the production unfolded:

  • A young boy in a nondescript boat was seen floating across the temporary lake in one moment. Soon thereafter, a Fertility Goddess, complete with era-appropriate frontal nudity, led a procession of prehistoric figures;

  • Motionless men costumed to appear as nude, muscular stone idols of one era soon yielded to men and women depicting athletes in motion -- images inspired by photos preserved from the 1896 Games.

  • Five Gambians in emerald green traditional garb walked in just behind the swarming delegations from France and Germany, which arrived in succession, in jackets and dresses.

  • The drab olives and other muted tones favored by many delegations were no part of Brazil's attire -- avocado jackets and white skirts for the women with a wavy, multicolored pattern. (The men wore matching neckties.)

    The eruption of the crowd for the 202nd and final delegation, Greece, came 2 hours, 45 minutes after the ceremony had begun. The Greek flag led off the parade of nations at the beginning of the night, thus a dozen or so in the Greek delegation carried in an oversized flag, holding it horizontally around its edges, to mark the conclusion of the parade.

    Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, a two--time Olympian and 1996 gold medalist in sailing, was honored by his countrymen as the final torchbearer after the flame completed its global journey by entering the stadium just ahead of midnight.

    He was presumed to have replaced Greek track star Costas Kenteris, who became the focus of a nationwide scandal Thursday when he apparently dodged a drug test and later injured himself and a fellow female track Olympian, Katerina Thanou, in a motorcycle accident. Both missed the opening ceremony and might be forced to withdraw from the Games pending further IOC investigation.

    Kaklamanakis, a 36-year-old Athenian, fulfilled his mission when raising the torch to ignite a stainless steel cauldron, 102-feet tall, designed by the same Spanish architect credited with creating the stadium's dramatic roof, Santiagio Calatrava.

    Upon ignition, the imposing cauldron pivoted upward so the flame moved high above the stadium. Against a clear night sky, Athens, all of Greece and the flame cast a bright light.