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HOWARD ROSENBERG / ON TELEVISION : And the First Big Winner Is NBC's Coverage of Opening


So the rumor wasn't true. Viewers learned that at the end of Friday night's televised opening ceremonies when the Olympic torch was not lit by Shaquille O'Neal with a flaming bundle of $100 bills.

If NBC had gotten its way, of course, the torch would have been fired up by the cast of "Friends." Instead the flame arrived with Muhammad Ali, capping hours of spectacle that earned the people who put it on the title of Dream Team.

Swell night.

It would be thrilling if the neutral Switzerland of athletes inside Atlanta's Olympic Stadium on Friday were, indeed, the real world. If the security vise squeezing the Olympiad were unnecessary. If Bob Costas were joshing when he announced, "We will have an NBC News presence throughout the Games should events warrant it." If the Olympiad's profusion of camaraderie, or "mixture of one family," as Dick Enberg put it, were not a fleeting eclipse of global ugliness due to last about as long as Dennis Rodman's present hair color. If the sprawling white dove formed on the floor of the stadium were not symbolically blackened by the gloom of TWA Flight 800.

For 17 days, though, this will do.

First came the evening's big opening show, a fat, highly energized, brilliantly lit dazzle of a southern welcome with a cast of 5,000 stunningly costumed performers executing panoramic routines ranging from stylish clogging and hoedowns to impressionistic history pageants and strutting 28-foot puppets.

You kept waiting for Charles Barkley to stick out a foot and trip one, but the Hurricane Bertha of the U.S. basketball team was yet to emerge from the athlete holding area. Later, when playfully prodded by NBC's Hannah Storm to forsake roughing up opposing players, he replied stonily: "These teams are dirty, and we will do what we have to do." She smiled, because . . . he was kidding, right?

From Olympiad to Olympiad in the TV age, the grandest highlight of the opening pomp is inevitably the parade of nations, when the teams stride around the track wearing their smiles and colorful traditional garb as triumphantly as they would the medals most will never win.

There is nothing quite like it, this year's oval stage shared by Yugoslavia and Croatia, by Israel and for the first time the newly designated Palestine, as well as by the formerly banished South Africa and so on and so on down the list of global tensions, past and present.

"Moments like this are what they cherish," Costas, who was especially terrific Friday night, observed about some of the wee-nation longshots making their way around the track with party faces.

Here's hoping that NBC recalls that as the Olympics proceed. It remains to be seen if tradition is served and the opening ceremonies become one of the few times that ethnocentric NBC gives much of a whit about athletes from other nations.

There were two additional parades Friday night, one a series of typically over-produced athlete profiles by NBC replete with schmaltzy slo-mo, romanticized gauzy pictures and dramatic swells of music fit for Charlton Heston, as if the actual Olympics were not tall enough and needed these artificial lifts.

The other was an onslaught of cinematic-style TV commercials that looked better and played smarter than most of this year's summer movies. That is, in one case, if your idea of fun was watching Madison Avenue's latest hero, Rodman, slobber a Carl's Jr. burger all over himself.

Well, it was only one commercial in an evening that in most ways was everything it was billed to be. And Ali as bearer of the flame? As gymnasts would say, they really stuck the landing.

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