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September 15, 2000
Cathy Freeman lights torchThe Rediff Team
In a celebration of 100 years of women's participation in the Olympics, it was women all the way as the Torch, beacon of Olympic aspirations, was finally lit over Stadium Australia.
The earlier pageantry was prelude (read the full report of the spectacular show) -- the real business began with the arrival of the Olympians.
The international Olympic band lined up along the periphery of Stadium Australia and, even as the Olympic flame made its way, outside the stadium, up the Parmetta river to Homebush, the athletes walked onto the ground they will rule for the next 15 days.
199 countries participate in the Millenium Games -- and as per tradition, it was Greece that started the parade, with its athletes marching into the stadium behind the national flag.
From then on, the English alphabet took over the ordering of the march past, as Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra....
The parade marched on. To the tune of the band, to the applause of the crowd, to the occasional roar as a shining star of the sporting firmament made his or her appearance.
The mood is anticipatory. The athletes, even as they march, will be looking ahead to the fierce competitions that begin in less than 24 hours from now. Competitions that put pride, individual and collective, on the line. There is, thus, anticipation in their eyes, even as they wave acknowledgement to the cheering crowds.
There is another parade -- at the very end of the Games, when the national flags are forgotten, as are the medals won and lost, and all the athletes, irrespective of national affiliation, walk out together arm in arm, singing, dancing, cheering in the aftermath of competition.
The costumes are idiosyncratic -- Iran for instance in trousers and suits without shirts, Brazil peacocking in traditional yellow, the Indians led by Leander Paes in suits and turbans, Cook Islands in traditional -- and spectacularly colourful -- native costume, the Italians cutting a splash in fluorescent trousers in shades of green, and blue, and red, topped by white open-neck shirts and navy blazers;
There are teams of all sizes -- from the likes of the British Virgin Island and Brunei Darussalam, with one athlete apiece, to the sporting giants of the world
It is also a quick lesson in changing political realities. There is that tragic symbol of strife, East Timor -- a country newly divorced from its masters, Indonesia, now under UN occupation pending a formal declaration of independence, and marching without a flag to call its own (they marched behind the Individual Olympic Athletes flag).
East Timor, a country waiting to be born, is given the honour of marching not in alphabetical order, but just ahead of host country Australia, which traditionally brings up the rear. Just four athletes, but the way they danced in exuberance as they entered the stadium, you could see just how delighted they were to be able to forget war, and enjoy sport.
There is Hong Kong -- for the first time, here, marching as Hong Kong China. There is the Burma that was, marching in under the Myanmar flag.
And then there are the two Koreas, marching together for the very first time to a standing ovation from the crowd, and a standing salute from Olympics boss Juan Antonio Samaranch, one of the prime movers in a massive diplomatic effort that brought about this result. Both the flags are brought out and paraded together -- immediately after the march past, they will separate, and contest as two nations, but for now, there is an illusion of present unity, a promise of a permanent unification, and that makes for a magic moment in the march past.
This is Australia, mate -- so guess who one of the biggest roars is reserved for? Neighbours New Zealand! Never mind the needling -- the two nations have a sentimental attachment that lies deep and strong, underlying the surface aggro.
The spectators, with their cameras, shoot souvenir pictures as the athletes march past. Some athletes, with their own cameras, shoot right back.
There were the dignitaries, prepared to forget their dignity and behave like awestruck kids as their own sporting favourites marched past. Vide Juan Antonio Samaranch, as Spain marched past. Or the likes of Muhammad Ali and Microsoft bossman Bill Gates, the latter on his feet waving the American flag, as the US of A entered the field they expect to dominate over the next fortnight.
And finally, Australia -- in green and yellow and red, waving little yellow kangaroo-dolls and cheering in response to the standing ovation from the 110,000-strong crowd. Cue the band, to break into a medley of Australian tunes like Click Go the Shears, We are One but We Are Many, I am, You are, We are Australian...
As the Aussie team filed into its allotted space in the centre of the stadium, and the Olympic flag was borne into the stadium, the band went into overdrive. And another Australian icon took the stage -- Olivia Newton-John, in shimmering white, with her rendition of Dare to Dream, specially composed for this Olympics. Accompanying her, John Farnham in sober black.
As they sang, they left the stage, walking down the steps and right into the middle of the assembled athletes, arrayed in two rows with a corridor in-between. Apt -- it is the athletes she is singing for, their motto she is warbling.
Australian Sports Minister Michael Knight, on next: "Tonight, we welcome the greatest athletes in the world to Sydney, Australia...."
On next, Juan Antonio Samaranch, to officially welcome the assembled athletes to the Olympiad in a bilingual (French and English, naturally) speech reiterating his pet theme, of the unifying, healing power of sport. Never one to miss a bet, Samaranch also thanks the people who have made Australia what it is today, including a special tribute to the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
Up next, Sir William Deane, Governor General of Australia, to "declare the 27th Olympiad of the modern era open!"
19-year-old Vanessa Amorosi, stunning in shining silver and pink-striped suit, on next to sing Heroes Live Forever. And as the song rolled on, a curtain of shimmering blue with first the dove of peace, then the Olympic rings, holographed onto the centre came floating out across the assembled athletes, who, in unison, raised their hands to hold it overhead. Spectacular, stunning -- a masterpiece of organisational skill meeting aesthetic values.
Lit by the spotlight, the Olympic flag was then marched around the stadium by eight former Australian Olympians, drawn across the ages and all in white.
A 200-member choir then broke into the Olympic hymn, in Greek, as military officers took the flag from the athletes and goose-stepped it over to the main flagpole for the official hoisting.
Rechelle Hawkes, captain of the Australian women's hockey team, now into her fourth Olympics and with two golds already under her belt, stepped forward to take the Olympic oath on behalf of the assembled athletes.
Peter Kerr, next up, to take the oath on behalf of the judges, umpires and other officials of the various disciplines.
Song break, next, with Tina Arena and the Sydney Children's Choir, singing The Flame -- while the object of the song, with its outriders in escort formation, approached the stadium.
The lights dimmed, the ground was a blue haze, as the flame entered the stadium, carried by Betty Cuthbert. The fastest woman in the world in 1956 (the Melbourne Olympics, in which she won three golds), she is now wheelchair bound, with Raelene Boyle pushing.
Cuthbert hands the torch over to the enduring Australian swimming icon, Dawn Fraser. Gold winner in Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964. And from Fraser, to ace swimmer Shane Gould.
And on, to Cathy Freeman, in white and green bodysuit.
As the ace aboriginal athlete runs up the stairs, water cascades down the north stands, collecting in a central pool. Into which steps Freeman, touching the flame to the water -- which lights up, in a circle that, in a marvel of technology, lifts off the surface of the water, revealing a cauldron that soars into the air, floating high above the crowd -- a flaming, futuristic flying object that floats up to the top of the Olympic stadium and holds position, while a pillar rises to meet it, dock, and hold it firmly in place.
As the flame lights up the sky, the periphery of the stadium reverberates to the flash-bang-crackle of fireworks. And the Games are officially underway.
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