ATHENS - With a towering cauldron and water works of unprecedented scope, the Greeks vibrantly and buoyantly rekindled the Olympic flame they first ignited more than 2,500 years ago.
The opening ceremonies, staged last night before a charged crowd of 72,000 in Athens' new Olympic Stadium, offered a spirited blend of old and new. From Athena to Zeus, tribute was paid to the ancient games that took root here in 776 B.C. and those that resumed the tradition in 1896.
To symbolize hope for the future, most of the performers were youngsters.
Gianna Angeloupoulos-Daskalaki, organizer of the games, stood on a platform next to an olive tree at the center of the track oval and declared: "Olympic Games ... welcome home!"
The show opened with 400 drummers emerging from the seats to pound in unison and mimic a heartbeat. Simultaneously, the video board showed a single drummer keeping time from the grounds of Olympia, birthplace of the games. A pyrotechnic comet sizzled from below the board and landed in a pool of water that temporarily filled the oval. Upon contact, it set ablaze the shape of the Olympic rings just above the water's surface.
It ended with Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, a windsurfer who carried the Greek flag in Sydney four years ago, running up a long staircase with the torch to light a 102-foot cauldron. A lever raised the cauldron above one of the stadium's open ends and just in front of an equally tall fountain outside, providing another dramatic juxtaposition of fire and water.
Out of sight and seemingly out of mind were concerns about terrorism and Greece's readiness for these games. The only signs of the intense security were a blimp carrying spy cameras and four helicopters overhead. No signs were evident of the last-minute rush to complete the $132 million structure.
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, congratulated and thanked the Greeks for their work, singling out the 40,000 volunteers for special praise.
Mr. Rogge also used his pregames speech to make a plea to the international community.
"We need peace. We need tolerance. We need brotherhood," he said. "Athens, and the other 200 countries here, show us that sport unites by overcoming national, political, religious and language barriers."
The American contingent of 538 athletes was received by the crowd without incident.
Two days earlier, the U.S. Olympic Committee had braced athletes for the possibility they could be jeered because of anti-American sentiment in the world. But a loud cheer from a large section that was dominated by U.S. fans made the only significant impact.
The athletes, nattily attired in casual berets, stayed in structured eight-wide rows. Members of the men's basketball team drifted apart at the back of the line - almost appearing to form their own nation at one point - but smiled and waved with the rest.
The Greeks gave up their traditional right to march first, opting to follow the other tradition by which the host nation goes last. Their flag came out alone at the beginning, the athletes at the end. By the time they emerged from the tunnel, the crowd went wild.
Two nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, were given the warmest welcomes among visitors. Iraq's delegation, which was suspended by the IOC before Saddam Hussein was toppled, received a standing ovation.
Afghanistan returned to the Olympics after being banned by the IOC in 2000 because of Taliban restrictions on athletes, specifically women. For the first time, it brought female athletes.
One of the most poignant moments came when the North Korean and South Korean athletes marched hand in hand. Their organizing committees informed Mr. Rogge that they wish to be unified by the Beijing Games in 2008.
Another noteworthy cheer came for the tiny African nation of Djibouti, whose tennis player, Abdo Abdallah, was carrying her nation's flag alone. When the torch was lit, it completed a 46,800-mile journey through 26 countries that began March 25 when it was lit in Olympia.
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.
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