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Pomp, pageantry as Games begin


SALT LAKE CITY - The 19th Winter Olympics, barely old enough to have a history, reached back last night and borrowed from one of its greatest memories.

The miracle men of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, 20 strong, stood atop the platform of the 117-foot-tall glass-and-steel caldron at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and touched a torch to the bowl to mark the symbolic beginning of the games.

The Olympic flame entered the stadium and passed from gold medal hand to gold medal hand, starting with figure skaters Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill and ending with hockey player Cammi Granato and skier Picabo Street. They carried it up the stairs and handed to the captain of the hockey team, Mike Eruzione.

Eruzione, in a 1980 jersey, high- fived Granato and Street and then beckoned his teammates to help light the caldron.

As Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" rang out, the five Olympic rings were ignited on the ice as fireworks exploded overhead.

These games of peace are playing out in a world at war, a point brought home in the opening minutes of the ceremony, when the tattered flag from the wreckage of the World Trade Center was gently carried into the stadium by an honor guard of 10 members of the New York City fire and police departments and the Port Authority police, and accompanied by eight U.S. athletes.

With snipers poised on the stadium roof and military helicopters hovering a short distance away, President Bush entered the darkened stadium in a bright pool of white light. His participation marked the first time an American head of state has been present in the four times the United States has been host to the Winter Games.

The crowd of 52,000, many of whom paid $885 for a ticket, roared as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concluded its performance of the national anthem.

These are the largest Winter Games ever - 2,531 athletes from 77 nations, and the first in the United States since the Lake Placid, N.Y., Games of 1980.

The parade of athletes was led by the 13-member Greek team and ended with the 211-athlete U.S. delegation. For some nations, such as Cyprus, Fiji and Thailand, the flag-bearer and team were one and the same.

Bermuda's lone entrant, luger Patrick Singleton, wore Bermuda shorts in 10-degree wind chill conditions.

The U.S. athletes chose their own inspirational teammates to lead them. Short-track speed skater Amy Peterson carried the flag, followed by members of the women's hockey team, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, figure skater Michelle Kwan and Street. Peterson, 30, a silver and bronze medallist, finished fourth in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan in the 1,000 meters after overcoming chronic fatigue syndrome.

Skeleton slider and third-generation Olympian Jim Shea Jr. gave the Athletes' Oath, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, two-time gold medallist Jack Shea. The senior Shea was supposed to attend the ceremony with his son Jim Shea Sr., a 1964 Olympic cross-country skier, but the 91-year-old was killed by a suspected drunken driver near his home in Lake Placid on Jan. 22.

Like everything else at the Olympics, this celebration was controlled by protocol, written and codified and followed to the letter, even down to the length of the speeches by the heads of the International Olympic Committee and the host committee (3 minutes each).

But there was plenty of room to color outside the lines. The stadium was outfitted with an enormous ice rink and filled with 800 skaters dressed as snowflakes, icicles, bison and moose.

Musically, the program featured a duet by Sting and classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and country singers LeAnn Rimes and the Dixie Chicks.

Spectators were turned into performers, spelling out with flip cards "Light the Fire Within," the theme of the Games, as fireworks exploded and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony Orchestra performed "Call of the Champions," a new composition by John Williams.

IOC President Jacques Rogge used the ceremony to call for peace on earth but stopped short of asking for a worldwide truce during the Games.

"People of America, Utah and Salt Lake City, we are gathered once again in your great country. Your nation is overcoming a horrific tragedy, a tragedy that has affected the whole world. We stand united with you in the promotion of our common ideals and a hope for world peace," Rogge said.

An enthusiastic president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Mitt Romney, told the athletes, "our hearts quicken with your dream ... may the fire we see within you light a fire within us."

Outside the stadium, about 600 Falun Gong members demonstrated to draw attention to the Chinese government's crackdown on the spiritual group.

The largest-ever Games also has the most events ever - 78 - with several added since the 1998 games in Nagano.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has set a goal of winning 20 medals, seven more than in 1994 and 1998, and offered rewards to athletes who get to the podium.

The athletes will gather again at the stadium on the evening of Feb. 24 to extinguish the flame in the caldron and hear Rogge issue the call to gather in Turin, Italy in 2006.

Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger.

Let the Games begin.

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