Spectacular tip of Australian hat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - It was overwrought, but wonderful. Australia can only hope that the Olympics themselves are as spectacular as last night's opening ceremony.

In a show bigger than the Outback, Australia displayed the audacity and exuberance that allowed it to land the Games of the XXVII Olympiad. The parade of most of the 10,000 athletes from 200 nations was outnumbered by performers, as a 90-minute display of entertainment ranged from psychedelic fantasy to high-wire act to boardwalk kitsch.

The Koreas, North and South, marched together under a common flag. Gestures of reconciliation were made to Aborigines and East Timor. Once considered a land that political correctness forgot, Australia recognized the 100th anniversary of women in the Olympics by having six of its country's greatest Olympians - all women - carry the torch on its final journey through the stadium.

The relay climaxed with a handoff to Cathy Freeman, Australia's most recognizable indigenous citizen, who lighted the Olympic cauldron to culminate the 4 1/2 -hour extravaganza.

Freeman hopes to win the 400-meter dash in another week at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium, the largest venue ever used at the quadrennial gathering of the world's athletes.

"We're sports mad," an Australian woman said. "We can build this, but a cathedral or a museum is another matter."

Last night, the stadium was used to open the Olympics under a Southern Hemisphere sky for only the second time. The first was also on Australian soil, and the difference between Melbourne in 1956 and Sydney in 2000 is as radical as the contrast between a rotary telephone and the microchip.

During the Melbourne Games, film had to be transported overseas before the rest of the world could watch the action. During the next two weeks, results from Sydney will be posted instantaneously on the Internet, though American TV audiences will be watching events that are more than 12 hours old because rights-holder NBC has decided to tape results and save them for prime time.

One technological glitch came during the lighting of the cauldron. Freeman ascended the north stands, walked into a pool of water and dipped the flame into it, igniting a ring of fire.

The ring was hydraulically lifted above Freeman, but then the seven-ton steel dish stalled for several minutes instead of ascending a waterfall to the top of the stadium.

"Everything was going so well up until then," director of ceremonies Ric Birch said. "That's a time when you get on the intercom and say, 'What's going on?' Nothing at all like this had happened before."

Eventually the cauldron made it to the top. The fire and water represented regeneration and cleansing.

Freeman was preceded by Australia's Olympic legends. Herb Elliott, the great miler, brought the torch into the stadium.

Poignantly, he passed it to Betty Cuthbert, a one-time track star who's now wheelchair-bound. She was pushed along by Raelene Boyle. Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King followed.

The identity of the cauldron lighter was supposed to be a secret, but Freeman was the only logical choice, a fitting follow to Muhammad Ali doing the honor four years ago in Atlanta.

The show that preceded the parade of athletes distilled 50,000 years of Australian history into 90 minutes.

Throughout, Aborigines like Freeman were recognized, as Australia attempted to belatedly recognize a people who were the continent's only inhabitants before England shipped some criminals here two centuries ago.

The leader of Australia's top Aboriginal body, Geoff Clarke, said the International Olympic Committee had upstaged the Australian government.

"The lesson tonight for this government and politicians in this country is to learn how to respect Aboriginal people," Clarke said. "It is now up to Prime Minister John Howard to act."

Aborigines say Howard's government has whitewashed Australia's history of abuse and injustice against them.

The derring-do program mixed the pomp of a presidential inaugural parade, the glitz of Las Vegas and the outrageousness of Mardi Gras, and rarely veered from acknowledging the Aborigines. It only seemed like all 19 million Australians performed; there were actually 12,600.

A single rider from the south end of the stadium turned into 120 on horseback. A young girl's daydream at the beach gave way to the largest number of people ever involved in an aerial performance, which melded art and acrobats. Some 1,200 dancers, nearly all indigenous, were joined by 140 fire breathers.

There were another 1,000 performers in a "Tin Symphony" that began with Captain Cook, the explorer who discovered the land, moved on to massive metal contraptions and finished with dancing lawnmowers. There were 2,000 children on the field in a sequence that symbolized the post-World War II wave of immigration to this country.

Greece, the site of the ancient Olympics and the host for the 2004 Games, had its customary spot at the head of the parade of athletes. Judo competitor Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene, the Mongolian flag bearer, strode bare-chested.

There was polite applause for Great Britain. The first standing ovation was given to the delegations from North and South Korea, the countries that still haven't signed a treaty over the war they waged 50 years ago. They agreed to march together last night.

The two will co-host the world's next great athletic festival, soccer's 2002 World Cup, and last night a representative of each nation shared a flag that placed an outline of the Korean peninsula in blue, on a white background.

The officials, coaches and athletes who followed in turn raised held hands.

The loudest, most sustained cheers, of course, were reserved for the Australian team. Headed by flag bearer Andrew Gaze, a former Seton Hall basketball player, the Aussies mugged for the cameras and tossed toy kangaroos into the stands.

Given the noise when the U.S. delegation was introduced, a lot of Yanks made the trip and paid upwards of $750 for opening-night tickets.

The U.S. flag was carried by kayaker Cliff Meidl, who in 1986 was nearly killed when his body absorbed 30,000 volts of electricity during an industrial accident. He was nearly a double amputee, but recovered with radical surgery and rehabilitation.

James Carter, the Mervo grad who will run in the 400 intermediate hurdles, said the ceremony left him speechless.

"I tried to get every moment on tape," Carter said. "When I hit the stadium, I tried to tape everything I could. In the infield, I ended up standing alongside Alonzo Mourning and Vince Carter. When they finished lighting the torch, that was incredible. They have outdone everything so far."

Bernard Williams, a high school rival of Carter at Carver, marched as a member of the U.S. track team, even though he hasn't been assured a place on the men's 400-meter relay team yet.

"I wish everyone in the world could have had that experience," Carter said of the ceremony. "I consider myself blessed to have seen it live and not on TV."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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