August 04, 1996

The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games are one of the most
mysterious events in sports, especially since they have so
little to do with the actual Games themselves. Green gnomes
cavort across a field while their frenetic brethren pound huge
drums. It's one big head-scratcher, the Main Street parade on
acid. Yet it is the toughest ticket at every Olympics, their
most anticipated, if mostly irrelevant, attraction. People who
wouldn't know a scull if they were whacked upside the head with
an oar wouldn't miss the opening ceremonies.

This one was no easier to understand than other recent opening
ceremonies. Being American, they were, of course, longer,
bigger and busier--an English translation of Citius, altius,
fortius. A horrific apparatus with a chrome beak moved across
Atlanta's Olympic Stadium, mowing down a field of butterflies.
What to make of that? People examine these productions for their
societal symbols, clues to a civilization. Pity the
anthropologist who has to divine some cultural meaning from a
parade of 30 pickup trucks, 500 cheerleaders and 24 cloggers.

There may have been an underlying theme, located somewhere
between Pindar and the Pipsless Gladys Knight, between an homage
to Martin Luther King Jr. and the formation of dancers that
spelled out HOW Y'ALL DOIN'? Hard to pin down, though, even if
you were watching on TV, getting NBC's interpretation of events.
For everything that had Olympic resonance--a diorama of archers
and wrestlers, their shadows thrown onto scrims--there was an
assemblage of characters right out of an animation cel. The
fabulosity factor was high.

Maybe only the athletes, the 11,000 competitors from 197
countries who entered the stadium to a prolonged fanfare, could
understand this imagination run amok. Maybe they could watch
Muhammad Ali, Olympic class of 1960, trembling terribly as he
held out the torch, and see not the shackles of his palsy but
the unfettered spirit of his Olympic youth, their youth. He was
once quite a piece of work, every night an opening ceremony of
his own creation. So maybe this spectacle made sense to the
athletes. Could you turn the field into a river and create
catfish to pull a 19-foot-high steamboat? Could you lift three
times your weight? Neither has a practical application, but it's
interesting, every two years or so, to see it done.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The surprising appearance of Ali brought together the Greatest with the gaudy and the gargantuan in a mind-boggling opening ceremony. [Muhammad Ali holding Olympic torch] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [See caption above--dancer in flamboyant dress] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--silhouettes on a scrim] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Olympic Stadium's field was transformed into a bloomin' sea of smiling young dancers during the four-hour fabathon. [Children in flamboyant outfits] THIRTEEN COLOR PHOTOS: V.J. LOVERO (8); BILL FRAKES (2); JOHN BIEVER; WALTER IOOSS JR.;PETER READ MILLER Voguing was de rigueur as athletes garbed in everything from Kuwaiti dishdashas (above) to American Samoan lavalavas (lower right), Dutch carrottops (center) and the regalia of 194 other nations said hello to Atlanta--and to each other. [International athletes during opening ceremonies at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games]

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