NAGANO, Japan — The 516-pound Akebono, barely clad in a sumo wrestling loincloth better suited for a February morning in his native Hawaii than the Japan Alps, began the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics on Saturday with a ritual to ward off evil spirits that might threaten the Games.
Let's hope it's more effective than the tomahawk chop.
The 1996 Summer Olympics not quite 19 months ago in Atlanta opened on a brilliant note, with one of sport's icons, Muhammad Ali, lighting the caldron high above the main stadium.
To borrow a term from the Winter Olympics, Atlanta's Games went downhill from there.
As a result, International Olympic Committee members are reserving their enthusiasm for these Games, although the opening ceremony at a cherry blossom-shaped baseball stadium known as Minami Nagano Sports Park was worthy of the usual adjectives--majestic, inspiring, joyful.
"So far, so good," is the most IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch will say.
After the triumphs of Barcelona in 1992 and Lillehammer, Norway, in '94, Samaranch and his IOC colleagues relaxed. Of the next four Olympics awarded, two, Atlanta in '96 and Salt Lake City in 2002, were scheduled for the United States; one, Nagano in '98, for Japan, and one, Sydney in 2000, for Australia, all highly developed nations.
But the IOC has discovered that you're only as good as your last Olympics.
For sporting competition, Atlanta's Olympics were the equal of any, providing numerous unforgettable moments--Kerri Strug's vault, Carl Lewis' fourth long jump gold medal, Michael Johnson's double, Amy Van Dyken's quadruple and the gold medals for the U.S. women's basketball, soccer and softball teams.
From an organizational perspective, however, the 1996 Summer Olympics forced the IOC to examine whether the Modern Games could thrive in a post-modern world.
The Centennial Park bombing, as tragic as it was, probably couldn't have been prevented. But collapses of the technology and transportation systems were ominous. If a First World city such as Atlanta was overwhelmed by the Games, how long would it be before the IOC could implement its plan to spread them to Africa, South America or even China?
When Samaranch closed Atlanta's Games by calling them "most exceptional," he didn't mean it as a compliment.
Perhaps. But it became convenient to blame the Atlantans.
"There was a sense of trust that they would know how to do it," said Anita DeFrantz, an IOC vice president from Los Angeles. "They said they had it under control, so who were we to say that they didn't?"
In fact, DeFrantz knew well in advance that Atlanta was no match for certain important aspects of organizing the Games. So did Richard Pound, an IOC vice president from Canada who presided over the commission that coordinated with Billy Payne and other officials from Atlanta's local organizing committee.
But Pound, not one to hold his tongue, did in this case.
"I'm not sure we'll ever see another financial model like Atlanta's," Pound said Friday. "If any of us ever suggested that something might be wrong, they asked us not to say anything because they were afraid it would scare away sponsors and burst their financial bubble."
Fair or not, the result is that Atlanta will go down in Olympic history along with Montreal in 1976 and Lake Placid in 1980 for providing a primer on how not to organize the Games.
The Japanese probably could have figured that out for themselves.
"I'm sure that what they saw in Atlanta, the loosey-goosey American thing, was anathema to them," Pound said.
Just in case, the IOC's coordinating commission for these Games, led by Switzerland's Marc Hodler, was considerably more vigilant in dealing with Nagano's organizing committee. The IOC is determined to prove that Atlanta was "most exceptional," not the rule in a new world disorder.
"We have a new attitude," DeFrantz said. "Trust, but verify."
Traffic in this crowded industrial city and on the narrow mountain roads could be the XVIII Winter Games' undoing, although a new plan implemented by organizers in time for the opening ceremony provided some relief.
Other variables, security in particular after a bombing this week at Tokyo's Narita Airport and the potential for hostilities in the Persian Gulf, could prove beyond the organizers' control.
The opening ceremony was a grand success, but the same could be said in Atlanta.
Asked this week if he believes he will be able to reprise his traditional closing ceremony mantra by calling these "the best Games ever," Samaranch said, "If they go as they are going as of today. This is an outstanding organization. We are very pleased and very happy. But we will see what we are saying during the closing ceremony."
If the verdict is not good, IOC officials will have to look deeper into themselves for a solution. The evil spirits are likely to behave, knowing they have to answer to Akebono.