View from the Stands

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The Olympic torch had been lit by a sparkling blaze that circled the stage and then raced up six support tubes to the cauldron, which at 187 feet is the tallest in the history of the games. It looked as if the opening ceremonies for the XX Olympic Winter Games were over. Shivering audience members started filing out, still wearing the white ponchos that had been placed on each seat with the aim of evoking an icy wonderland on television, since Torino has been unseasonably warm and there is no real snow in town. But it turned out they were leaving in the eighth inning. Massive ruby drapes had appeared beneath the cauldron and they parted to reveal a giant chandelier and Luciano Pavarotti in a setting suggesting an outdoor opera house. Hÿe performed "Nessun Dorma," the Puccini aria he made immortal. In English, it would be, "With the dawn I will win! I'll win! I'll win!" Or even, "I will conquer." The brief fireworks that followed were literally anticlimactic.

The theme for the games is "Passion Lives Here," so signs and logos for the game are dominated by red. The opening ceremony — held at 8 p.m. Torino time, and therefore six hours before it was shown on NBC on the East Coast – used 122 makeup artists, 70 flame-thrower nozzles, 4,400 pounds of fireworks and 6,500 costumes. It was very Italian – loud and somewhat chaotic, especially by comparison to the relatively sober 2002 winter games in Salt Lake, where a solemn ceremony began with the display of a tattered American flag recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The production had surprising lulls, though, such as the boring balloon heads who followed the fake cows pulled by waltzers in Holsteinesque spotted costumes on the white-floored performance ring, which the choregraphers called a mosh pit (piazzetta). Actually, according to the Opening  Ceremonies Media Guide, a fat 68 pages in both English and Italian, those were not technically "balloon heads." They were 50 snow women, "symbolizing winter snowflakes." So there.

The ceremony kicked off 17 days of competition, running Feb. 10 through 26, in 15 sports. About 2,500 athletes from a record 80 countries will compete in Torino, which is the headquarters for Fiat and is sometimes called the Detroit of Italy. From the air, the city looks almost competely brown, although the surrounding Alps make for picturesque snapshots and television coverage. Torino, best known for the mysterious linen shroud that remains locked away in a cathedral here, has turned into one big street festival and in the afternoon, police motorcades with sirens blazing accompanied the arriving torch runners. After the flame was passed on, big crowds surrounded the doused torch, and people posed for pictures of them all along the busy Via Po.

Each seat in the Olympic Stadium had an "audience kit" containing props to be used to create card-trick-like effects on television. The kit included the white ponchos, which most people put on before the ceremony began, as much for warmth as for team spirit; a red seat cushion with a Torino 2006 logo in white; and a red plastic flash light, to be wielded like a cigarette lighter at a rock concert. The kit itself was even a prop – a metallic bag that could be held up to create a blinding effect. In case any audience member didn't know when to participate, each section also had a volunteer "audience leader" to provide cues.

Celebrities in attendance included NBC’s Katie Couric, who was rolled to the front of the media security-check line, in the wake of widespread speculation about why she was anchoring Today rather than the Olympics coverage. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an Olympic hero for his handling of the 2002 games, made himself prominent, perhaps with an eye on a presidential race.  The First Lady Laura Bush, who headed the U.S. delegation, was in a skybox near British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, who objected to having news photographers take her picture.  Yoko Ono and Peter Gabriel also appeared, and paid tribute to her husband John Lennon’s "Imagine." Twenty-eight white-clothed acrobats climbed polls on a massive structure and briefly formed an astonishing dove of peace. The crowd joined reticently and sporadically into "YMCA," but perked up to "Jump" and "I Feel Good!"

By tradition, Greece led the Athlete’s Parade, followed by the countries in alphabetical order, in Italian, from Albania to Venezuela, with Italy the climactic parade. Stati Uniti D’America came between Spain and South Africa. Some of the smaller, tropical delegations were crowd pleasers – Kenya with two athletes got big cheers, as did Senegal, with three. New Zealand wore menacing black. Team USA brought much of the crowd to its feet. The athletes entered under the five giant Olympic rings, which represent the five continents and rose through the early part of the ceremony and then took on their traditional colors in a burst of flame.

Just before the Opening Ceremonies, First Lady Laura Bush had met with 100 or more members of the U.S. delegation. "You have a powerful platform here to have the world see American in a positive light," she told them. "I hope that during your time here, each of you will think of yourself as ambassadors for America." The athletes – most of them unknowns, all of them giddy – snapped pictures of each other, and of each other snapping pictures. "See you at home," Mrs. Bush said as she left after a final group shot. "Lots of luck."