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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 7, 2008 7:13 PM

An ode to the opening ceremony

Posted by Ron Judd

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Some people mark the passage of time by the birth years of their children. For the past dozen years, I've used Olympic opening ceremonies.

That Isuzu I once owned? Sure, bought it just after Midori Ito lit the cauldron in Nagano --1998. The year I moved? Just after the 1980 Miracle on Ice team did the same at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City -- 2002. The night I (fortunately) sat down in the Olympic Stadium next to the woman who, two years later, would become my wife? Turin, 2006.

The ceremonies are an easy memory key to each Olympics, and each Olympics is connected forever in history to a date. You can love or loathe the ceremonies that open the Games, but you can't dispute that they're momentous.

Which is why I'd be a little pumped today if I was in Beijing. After seven years of preparation, debating, second-guessing, spending, relocating and building, all the hype melts away just hours from now in China.

Opening ceremony. Game on.

For athletes, coaches, officials and journalists on the scene, it's get-nervous time. The talking is over. You're about to get sucked into the vortex of a gigantic, international spectacle, which, before you know it, will spit you out, exhausted and exhilarated, on the other side.

I know some journalists who've been through a dozen or more of these ceremonies, and to some of them, it eventually becomes old hat. Not me. I'm a ceremony geek, through and through. When I'm at the Olympics, I get there early and would, if blasted newspaper deadlines ever allowed, stay late.

For better or worse, this show ranks among the greatest human spectacles on earth. It is the one time the people of the world get together in the same room to try to do something besides kill or bully one another (sorry, United Nations).

The ceremony serves a dual purpose: It conducts all the ritual pageantry to officially open the Games, and provides a major floor show that attempts to sum up the very existence of a nation in about two hours. Every host nation puts a unique stamp on these, sometimes deadly serious, sometimes playful, often both. The results can be both disappointing and thrilling, but rarely forgettable. At least when you're there to feel it in person, rather than just see it, filtered, on TV.

The most recent opening ceremony I watched on TV was Atlanta's in 1996. I vaguely recall a conga line of jacked-up Chevy monster trucks. It didn't make much of an impression, and what remains in my head is not good.

Then I started watching in person, and everything changed.

The Olympic pageantry, played out right in front of you -- and the truth is, press people usually get really, really good seats -- is grand theater. If you're into the Olympic ideal, it's impossible not to be moved in some way seeing that big, white flag, lit by spotlights, marched into a pitch-black stadium and raised up a flag pole to the strains of The Olympic Hymn.

And forget about even trying to be a dispassionate observer when the final torch bearer enters the stadium, and the Olympic cauldron is lit by whatever creative means the hosts have devised.

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Sometimes, the symbolism in this action can transcend the event -- and the Games themselves. I will go to my grave knowing that the 2000 Summer Games opening ceremony in Sydney, Australia, was one of the most magnificent things I will ever witness.

There was something in the warm, spring air that night; something about being in that throng of 100,000 spectators, watching Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman, a black woman in a stunning white stretch suit, hold the dancing orange flame from an Olympic torch to her feet as she stood on stepping stones in a pond of still water. Something about the way the water burst into flames in a burning ring that rose above her head and, ultimately, to the top of Stadium Australia. Something magical.

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It might have been the first simultaneous, 100,000-throat-lump moment in history. I don't know if it felt that way here, a half a world away, on TV. I doubt it felt as momentous as it did there, near the shores of Homebush Bay. But I look at a picture of it on the wall of my home office, and still feel a thrill.

The genius in the organizers of that ceremony was in their recognition of the moment, and their willingness to seize it. Australia, an isolated place, used its ceremoniy not only to wave howdy to the rest of the world, but as a form of national catharsis. By handing its highest honor, the lighting of the cauldron, to an Aboriginal woman, a nation that had never been kind to either Aborigines nor women tacitly acknowledged past sins against its own people.

That was bold. It was special. And it all played out on the sort of grand stage that only the Olympic Games -- a flawed beast in many other ways, yes -- can provide.

I'd like to think China will similarly seize the day. I don't hold a lot of hope for that. It's an impossibly high standard. What I do suspect is that this nation's ceremony, like many before it, will be spectacular. And I hope it's perceived as wildly successful.

An opening ceremony is, more than anything else, a celebration of a host nation's people, history, culture and heritage. It's the one chance a country gets to hold its head high, put its shoulders back, and display itself to the world.

Say what you will about China's government its pollution, its environmental policies (yes; I have, and will continue to). But it's tough to argue with the notion that the people of China deserve this brief dance in the spotlight.

You would like to think that for one evening, at least, the rest of the world can keep its protest banners in the wings and let those people, all 1.3 billion of them, have their moment.

It is, after all, only a moment.


Photos (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times): Top: A young Chinese girl welcomes the world to Beijing at the end of the Turin, Italy closing ceremonies in 2006. Center: The Olympic flag is carried into the opening ceremony at Athens, Greece in 2004. Lower: Cathy Freeman holds the torch aloft in Stadium Australia, 2000.


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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.