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DAY 1 / SATURDAY, JULY 28, 1984

Opening ceremony at L.A. Olympics succeeded on grand scale

The David L. Wolper production, featuring John Williams' memorable theme and 84 grand pianos, got the Games off to a fitting start. Rafer Johnson's torch lighting capped it all off.

July 28, 2009|Bill Brink

The big news

The Games of the XXIII Olympiad began in the Coliseum in front of 92,665 spectators. When each raised a colored card, the stands offered a display of the flags of every country participating in the Games. Absent from the display were 14 flags from the countries that followed the Soviet Union's boycott.

The David L. Wolper-produced opening ceremony mesmerized those inside the Coliseum as well as those at home, with ABC's Jim McKay and Peter Jennings handling the commentary. Among the highlights: Etta James' singing "When the Saints Go Marching In," and later, 84 grand pianos played simultaneously.

But perhaps the most inspiring performance came courtesy of composer-conductor John Williams, already famous for his Hollywood scores ("Jaws," "Star Wars" and others). His "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" -- particularly its signature fanfare of trumpets at the start -- produced goose bumps and became synonymous with the Olympics. It later brought Williams one of his many Grammy Awards. Williams himself conducted the orchestra during the opening ceremony.

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The big surprise

It was the best-kept secret. No one knew who would carry the torch up the stairs to light the Olympic flame in the Coliseum. The crowd cheered when it realized who: former UCLA star Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

He marched up a specially built staircase with the torch. Johnson said later he feared falling or failing to reach the top. Once he lighted the flame, he said, the impact of the moment hit him so suddenly and so completely that he believed he could have fallen off at that moment.

An added bonus: Johnson received the torch from Gina Hemphill, the granddaughter of track champion Jesse Owens, the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first Games after the previous Olympics held at the Coliseum, in 1932.

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Update

Johnson is now active in the Special Olympics in Southern California and is a spokesman for Hershey's Track and Field Games.

"I don't know many things that I've done that I've been more proud of than having an opportunity to run the final leg in the torch [relay]," Johnson said during a 1984 Olympics 25th-anniversary dinner held at the Coliseum recently. "It was the most wonderful couple of weeks I think this city has ever had."

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From the archives

"Bravo for ABC's sense of history and for its decision to stay with the event a few minutes longer than its scheduled 3 1/2 hours, enabling it to capture the spontaneous dancing by athletes in the center of the Coliseum. . . . It was a wonderful sight to watch." -- TV columnist Howard Rosenberg

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Spotlight on

Bill Suitor. He flew into the Coliseum using a Bell Aerosystems rocket pack and landed right on top of his target circle. Ten days ago, at the anniversary dinner, he reprised his performance, flying in over the Coliseum's famed peristyle and -- once again -- making a perfect landing.

As then-L.A. Times columnist Scott Ostler wrote at the end of that day 25 years ago, "One man flew through the air and another climbed to the heavens."

-- Bill Brink

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Expanded coverage on latimes.com

For more photos from the 1984 Summer Games and to see how some of the athletes look today, go to latimes.com/sports .

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