Message all but lost in overdone start


Turin, Italy-- --An old Italian joke: What do you get when you cross Sophia Loren, rollerbladers with flames shooting from their helmets, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Luciano Pavarotti, dancing trees, Yoko Ono and a couple thousand of the world's best athletes?

You get the official start of the Olympic Winter Games, of course, where pomp, circumstance and nonsense overshadow any actual athletic achievement. Last night, the traditional opening ceremony remained true to Olympic pattern: overdone and simplistically naive.

The kickoff ceremony includes an oath by the athletes and judges, encouraging and serene remarks by the top boss of the Olympic movement and this year, special American celebrities that pushed the production past silly and into absurdity.

Before the lighting of the Olympic flame and before the Games officially began, there was Yoko Ono on a small stage, talking about peace and togetherness. A little hint to future Olympic organizers: If you want someone to talk about unity, don't recruit the woman who broke up The Beatles. The world hasn't exactly forgiven her yet.

When she was finished, the spotlight shined on a piano where Peter Gabriel belted out a version of John Lennon's "Imagine." It was moving, but misplaced. You remember the words. Let's sing-along:

Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do ...

Uh, wait a second. Weren't there flags from 80 countries lined up behind Gabriel? And isn't a basic premise of the Olympics that nations would be pitted against one another to determine the very best?

Obviously, the intended message transcends sports. "Our world today is in need of peace, tolerance and brotherhood," Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, told the estimated crowd of 35,000. "The values of the Olympic Games can deliver these to us. May the Games be held in peace, in the true spirit of the Olympic Truce."

The truce is a tradition in which Olympic organizers call for all nations to lay down their arms during the days of athletic competition.

Marco Balich, who produced the 3 1/2 -hour show, said organizers specifically sought out Ono to deliver this message. "We wanted to make a strong statement of peace," he said.

No word yet on whether President Bush is withdrawing troops from Iraq based on Ono's plea, but I wouldn't put much money on it.

The problem isn't the message. It's simple and ideal and beautiful. It's just misplaced and overly simplistic. I watched the night's festivities with a journalist from Jerusalem who said her neighborhood has been bombed nearly a dozen times in three years. As we left the ceremony, she scoffed at the night's message. "It's easy for these people to say," she said. "They don't live in the real world."

The night's message was delivered in Stadio Olimpico, a stadium that was originally built in 1932 by Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator. I'm not sure he would've inked his name to the Olympic truce.

Despite the words, if you plugged your ears, it would have required a pretty discerning artistic eye to grasp the message of peace. This show had it all: Baroque-era costumes, dancing cows, a modern-day roller derby, a man in white tights, sequins and a colored mohawk. There were pyrotechnics, mid-air acrobatics and, of course, a group of performers with giant balloons attached to their heads.

The world's top winter athletes filed into the stadium with the help of the world's worst wedding DJ spinning the Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Village People.

It was a gala where the message was drowned out by the spectacle, similar to the Academy Awards, where no one is talking about the anti-war acceptance speech; just who wore what.

For the record:

Best dressed: Kazakhstan.

Worst dressed: Germany (guacamole-green is tough to pull off in the winter).

Best hats: Mongolia (or were they wearing pets on their head?)

Best surprise performance by a -stan: Kyrgyzstan.

Eighth-largest country: Pavarotti.

If you didn't already know what the Olympic rings represented, you'd have had no idea that the opening ceremony was connected in any way to sport. The flag bearing the rings was carried into the stadium by eight women, including Susan Sarandon. Naturally.

Despite the lengthy pomposity, the night ended on a high note. The theme and message had finally been abandoned. The spotlight was on the Olympic flame, and the grand finale brought Pavarotti onto the world's stage.

He sang an aria called "Nessun Dorma." The opera star managed to deliver more beauty in those final four minutes than the entire night of sparkles, costumes and dancing.

The last three lines:

Vanish, o night! Fade, stars! At dawn I shall win.

It was the only message of the night that had any real meaning: At sunrise, competition would finally begin.

Read Rick Maese's blog at




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