The 21st century is upon us, and Dr. Seuss is holding sway. Those were just two of the messages conveyed by the spectacular and mind-warping opening ceremony of the XVI Olympic Winter Games last Saturday night, an event Albertville's computerized information system, the Venue Chronicle, had promised would "rupture with the quiet tradition of the previous editions." The Chronicle didn't lie. Tradition was gleefully ruptured, vented and de-spleened to the delight of 33,000 spectators who didn't pay $300 a ticket just to hear France's president, Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Mitterrand, utter "Let the Games begin." and to watch Dan Quayle do the Wave.
But there was another message underlying the proceedings, one that echoed the upbeat spirit of the opening ceremony: The world is a changed place since the Olympics were last held four years ago. Us versus Them, my superpower versus your superpower, no longer has a place in a 21st-century Games. There is a whole new order of things, and no one has illustrated that more joyfully, playfully and convincingly than the French did in opening their third Winter Olympics.
It seemed as if the Albertville Games might begin like so many others before them—in unruptured peace, tranquillity and anticipation. Nature had done its part: There was snow in the mountains, but not so much snow that the roads were imperiled. The French government had done its part: The 10 venue sites scattered throughout 640 square miles of the Savoie Alps were fully operational and widely admired. Even the shuttle-bus system for spectators and athletes was working, after a fashion—"It may not be the most efficient bus system in the world," one passenger said, "but it's certainly the most officious one."
The 2,196 athletes from a Winter Games-record 65 countries were resplendent as they marched into the temporary stadium. But in this procession of nations was the first clue that all hell was about to break loose, that tradition was about to be ruptured. Each team was led into the stadium by a Frenchwoman encased from her neck to her knees in a transparent bubble. Fortunately it wasn't very cold, for inside the clear globe the women appeared to be clad mostly in Saran Wrap. It was difficult to tell what else, if anything, they were wearing, because as the women sashayed around the stadium floor, they swung their arms to create a blizzard of feathers. These women would have made wonderful paperweights.
Reflecting the recent changes in global politics, Croatia marched as one team, Slovenia as another and Yugoslovia as a third. What was once the Soviet Union was supplanted by teams from Estonia. Latvia and Lithuania plus a Unified Team of 119 Russians, 10 Ukrainians, seven Kazakhstanians, three Byelorussians and two Uzbekistanians.
By the time the French, the last team to appear, entered the stadium, a crescent moon had risen, and the orange of the alpenglow was visible through the open end of the stadium. The Olympic flag was carried in to the haunting melody of a dozen alpine horns. The torch was dramatically lit by a fireball. The Olympic oaths were spoken. When an 11½-year-old girl from the Savoie with a name as beautiful as her voice, Sèverine du Peloux, sang La Marseillaise on an ascending platform, well, there couldn't have been a dry eye in France. All was well, and tradition was in place.
Enter the "soubassophones," and the rupture of tradition was on.
The soubassophones were three cornucopias, each 15 feet high and 29 feet long, out of which emerged 144 dancers, acrobats and jugglers who might have stepped from the pages of Norton Hears a Who. Some were on stilts. Some wore giant condom-shaped appendages on their heads. A luger luged down a giant teeter-totter ramp. Skaters skated on roller-blades. A skier skied on skis with little wheels. Music, umm, played. New Age stuff—you know, synthesizers accompanied at various times by dirgelike chants, celestial voices, howling wolves and the neighing of frightened horses. (Or maybe that strange noise came from some of the more hidebound members of the IOC.)
The highlight of the show was what the Venue Chronicle had dubbed "the unforgettable yo-yo dancers ballet." Suspended from a tower in the center of the stadium by bungee cords, 20 acrobats were launched skyward by their partners on the ground, like human paper clips being shot from rubber bands except that they—booiinngg—snapped back toward earth. And because a bunch of acrobats were bounding on trampolines, the entire staging area appeared to be in zero gravity.
A smiling 250-pound cherub—in need of a shave—was hoisted over the stadium on a cable, a perch from which he strummed a harp and dropped feathers on the wide-eyed spectators.
Finally, huge neon-green and neon-yellow worms were inflated along the perimeter of the stadium, where the worms wriggled spasmodically in the night air. This effect was duplicated in the stands, where thousands of spectators whirled miniature multicolored whistling plastic worms above their heads on cue. This was the most Seussian moment of the night. The crescent moon had disappeared. The Alps were lost in the dark. Pandemonium reigned on earth. Let the Games begin.
If the athletes of the Albertville Olympics can amaze, uplift, amuse and inspire as effectively as did the opening ceremony, these Winter Games will be an unmitigated success. Certainly the extravaganza struck a winning chord with the Austrians, who accumulated seven medals on the first two days of competition: gold and silver in the 90-meter jump (page 46), gold and bronze in the men's downhill (page 36), silver and bronze in the men's luge (page 44), and bronze in the women's 3,000-meter speed skating.
The rest of us will, at the very least, have the memory of an unforgettably bizarre evening of whimsy as a keepsake of Albertville's Winter Games. As one spectator was overheard to say, with the giant neon worms wriggling overhead in the cold black sky, "If they put as much effort into the toilets in this country, it would be a helluva place."