Pageantry opens '98 Olympics

Associated Press Published:

NAGANO, Japan _ With Japan's mountains lining the horizon, the last Winter Olympics of the century opened on Saturday with sumo wrestlers casting away evil spirits and the music of Beethoven reverberating from a cherry blossom-shaped stadium.

More than 2,400 athletes from 72 nations and regions _ the most ever for a Winter Olympics _ are competing during the next two weeks in 14 sports in Nagano and the mountain range that encircles it. Some nations are fielding dozens of athletes; others, like Iran and Belgium, have only one.

They marched into the Minami Nagano Sports Park triumphantly, each group led by an athlete carrying its national flag, each nation escorted by a Japanese sumo-wrestling champion clad only in a loincloth. Greece, the font of the games, marched first; host country Japan entered last.

Eds: Begin material EMBARGOED until speech is delivered, scheduled for 10:15 p.m. EST.

"I sincerely hope that these games from the heart will achieve such splendid heights that they will ... be talked of for generations to come," said Eishiro Saito, president of the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee.

End material embargoed until 10:15 p.m. EST.

The Olympic flame, contained in a cauldron designed to resemble a traditional Japanese bonfire, was to be kindled by Japanese figure skater Midori Ito. Just how she would do so was one of the ceremony's most closely guarded secrets.

Emperor Akihito, the son of a man who for many symbolized Japan's 20th-century war machine, called for an end to global conflict and pronounced the games open.

But events elsewhere hinted at a harsher reality. Security was tightened around Nagano earlier this week after a terrorist attack on Tokyo's international airport. And in Washington, President Clinton mulled whether to use military force against Iraq _ an option Olympic organizers have implored him to avoid while the 18th Winter Games are in progress.

The opening ceremony came 102 years after the first modern Olympics were held in Athens. The first Winter Games came 28 years later.

In addition to peace, the games offer several themes _ banning land mines, showcasing technology and promoting environmental responsibility.

Japanese music wailed as eight two-ton wooden pillars rose to point skyward and purify the games. Sumo wrestlers marched onto the dais, chests bare in the January air. Leading them: Akebono, Japan's grand sumo champion, or "yokozuna," who performed a painstaking ritual designed to cast away evil spirits.

Children swarmed across the stage, dancing in brown straw gowns to mystical music before casting off outer layers for white tunics within and becoming "yukinko," or snow children. They sang Andrew Lloyd Webber's song "When Children Rule the World."

Technology was showcased during a performance of "Ode to Joy," from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A system tailored to eliminate the moments-long delay typical of conventional satellite transmissions allowed Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa to lead a real-time, intercontinental performance of choirs.

They sang from Berlin's Brandenburg Gate to Sydney's famed opera house, from the U.N. General Assembly Hall in New York to the gates of the Forbidden City in Beijing and the shores near Cape Town, South Africa.

At ceremony's end, just before five jets streaked crisply across the sky, dove-shaped balloons soared into the winter air, each carrying a message from a Nagano child.

Even the doves were tooled to fit not one, but two themes of this year's games. Foremost, of course, they signified peace.

They were also fully biodegradable.

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