NEWS

Athens 2004 starts with splendid ceremony

Athens welcomed the Olympics back to the city in which they were revived in 1896 last night with an opening ceremony that combined homage to the Greeks and their long march through the millennia with an enthusiastic welcome to the athletes of all the world’s nations competing in these Games. The ceremony combined state of the art technology with simple and strong images from myth, history and civilization, ranging from stylized depictions of Bronze Age Cretans leaping over a bull to a pantomime of the Olympic revival in 1896. The show, whose artistic director was dancer-choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, was performed by nearly 5,000 volunteers and artists, and tied together a rich past with a modern sensibility, touching repeatedly on Greek history without resorting to cliche. It provided the message of a modern country that Greek organizers hope the successful hosting of the Olympics will show. The modernization that Athens has undergone in order to host the Games will also leave it a more modern and sophisticated city than it was before the Games. These preparations have come at a cost that has still not been calculated fully. But government officials estimate that in the end it will be about 7 billion euros. A billion euros are being spent on an unprecedented security umbrella that ranges from 24-hour patrols by military planes to underwater sensors in ports. These are the first Summer Games since the advent of mass terrorism on September 11, 2001. But support for the Games has been overwhelming, with the Greeks proud to show the rest of the world what a small nation can accomplish. On a hot and windless night, when even the flags on the top tiers of the stadium hung limp, the 72,000 people in the stadium and an estimated 4 billion television viewers were treated to a show that combined Greek history with the sea, earth and inventiveness that have forged the Greek character. One of the central pieces of the show was a huge 17.3-meter-high replica of the head of a Cycladic statue rising out of the water that covered the stadium floor. As this prehistoric era statue rose above the stadium, it disintegrated slowly, revealing first the statue of a young man in the stiff style of the Archaic era (known as a kouros) before this too disintegrated to reveal the relaxed and realistic statue of a young man in the style we now know as Classical, which represents the Classical age of Athens in the fifth century BC and which is best expressed by the Acropolis and its temples. This was the first time that the Olympic Stadium, which was originally built in 1982, was used with the magnificent new roof designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The crowd was warm and enthusiastic, with big cheers going to the teams of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. The grand ceremony managed to get Greeks’ minds off the travails of star sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, who appeared in imminent danger of missing the Games after failing to appear for an IOC doping control test.