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In a Pageant of Pomp, Pride and Security, Salt Lake Games Open

Olympics: Fighter jets fly above the stadium and checkpoints are time-consuming. But complaints are few.

February 09, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SALT LAKE CITY — In a nation at war, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games opened Friday as a celebration of peace, one marked by extraordinarily tight security, a heartfelt display of patriotism and the pageantry of a ceremony that depicted the history and splendor of Utah and the American West.

With F-16 fighter jets on alert in the skies above, 18 members of the 1980 men's U.S. hockey team lighted the Olympic caldron at the south end of Rice-Eccles Stadium, providing a vivid reminder of perhaps the greatest moment in the country's Winter Olympic history.

"On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games," President Bush said, departing from the traditional Olympic declaration to include a patriotic preface. Bush delivered the one-sentence address surrounded by the U.S. team.

Outside the stadium, security was predictably tight. But there were few, if any, complaints, and many people said they were surprised by how quickly they moved through the checkpoints.

"It was amazing," said Debbie Saindon of Roseville, Calif. "I'd say it took 10 minutes in total."

The security ringing the stadium was merely the most visible feature of the $310 million in funds directed to help secure these Games. An estimated 10,000 police officers and soldiers stood guard at Olympic venues in and around Salt Lake City, a force charged with guarding the first mass gathering of nations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Your nation is overcoming a horrific tragedy," International Olympic Committee Chairman Jacques Rogge told the audience. "A tragedy that has affected the whole world. We stand united with you in the promotion of our common ideals and hope for world peace."

The weather, always a concern at the Winter Olympics, forced a postponement of the first competition--ski jump qualifying in Park City earlier Friday. But a low cloud cover that had glowered over the Olympic stadium began to break up just before the opening ceremony, revealing a colorful sunset and a spectacular view of the Wasatch Range immediately to the east. The five Olympic rings could be seen burning white on the side of the range. A short time later, a light snow began to fall, as if on cue. The temperature was 19 degrees.

Just as noticeable as the security was the overwhelming, and largely unscripted, outpouring of U.S. patriotism. Bush was greeted by a deafening roar as he arrived in the stadium. U.S. athletes waved small American flags as they marched in the parade of nations. The French team waved double-sided flags--the French tricolor on one side, the Stars and Stripes on the other. Plenty of spectators waved back.

"It's time to come out and show your spirit," said Alex White, of Daytona Beach, Fla., who attended the ceremony with a friend. Both showed that spirit and then some, with red-white-and-blue stovepipe hats, white curly wigs and flag-design bandannas and pins.

The Olympics, of course, are intended to reflect more than mere nationalism, a fact that always seems more poignant in a time of world strife. And so the stadium erupted in cheers--and no audible boos--for Iran, the only participant among the three nations identified by Bush as among an "evil axis" supporting terrorism. Iraq and North Korea--the other nations warned by Bush in his State of the Union address--did not send teams, nor did Afghanistan, which was banned by the IOC for refusing, under its former Taliban regime, to allow women to compete.

A joyous mood permeated the ceremony, especially during the stirring parade of athletes into the stadium. Midway through the procession, the French began doing the wave, and it quickly spread, nation by nation. Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir joined in.

Once the athletes took their seats beneath the still-unlighted caldron, the colors of their uniforms--the white and red of the German team, the icy blue of Finland, the white and brown coats of the Russians--formed a peaceful patchwork quilt on the south end of the stadium.

"I don't want to overstate what the Olympics can do," said Mitt Romney, who took over as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee three years ago at the height of the worst corruption scandal in Olympic history, "but at a time like this, maybe more than any time in our history, this gathering at this time has powerful symbolism that is not lost on America or the world.

"Following Sept. 11," he said, "there were some people who wondered if these Games could be pulled off. Now they seem more important than ever. They can be a source of healing, not only for our nation but for the world."

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