September 15, 2000

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G'Day, world! The Olympics is here!

The Rediff Team

At 1315 IST, the Greatest Show on Earth began, in spectacular fashion.

110,000 people, packed into Stadium Australia for the opening ceremony, chanted 10... 9... 8...7...6....

And bang on cue, to the count of a full-throated ZERO!, a lone horseman dressed up in rodeo attire rode into the centre of the stadium, all thundering hoofs and crackling whip.

Horsemen carry Olympic flags during the opening ceremony The thunder intensified as a 100 horsemen, carrying Olympic flags, rode in behind the leader, to the strains of The Man from Snowy River, a famous Australian poem abouit stockmen and their women that has since been made into a feature film.

The official announcement followed: 'Welcome to the Olympic Games!. In both English and French -- which marks an end to the feud sparked off during the run-up to the Games, when a move to have only English announcements was protested by the French. The Olympic Charter lays down French and English as the official languages of the Olympics.

On the field, the stockmen and women stitched together a display of exemplary riding skills, forming circles, lines, and finally, the five rings of the Olympic emblem. On cue, an enormous flag dropped into the centre of the stadium.

Australia's jazz giant James Morrison, trumpet blaring, strolled out onto the stage with a band backing him. The crowd picked up, and amplified, Australia's unofficial, but de facto, national anthem, Waltzing Matilda.

To the call of the announcer, Sir William Deane, Governor General of Australia, and Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, took their places on the dais.

Harmony group Human Nature took the stage at the northern end of the stadium -- a three level affair with stairs leading up the centre. And launched into the official Australian anthem, Advance Australia Fair. Backing them, was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Fronting them, Julie Anthony, the Aussie singer whose rendering of the anthem has elevated her to iconic status.

And over it all, rose the voice of the crowd as it first backed, then took over, the singing, their voices reverberating off the heavens.

Deep Sea Dreaming

13-year-old actress Nikki Webster floats among giant jellyfish For the first part of the ceremony, the stadium was a deep brown colour, signifying the earth. Almost magically, it changed to the sandy colour of the beach, as 14-year-old Nikki Webster took over from the riders. Carefully, the little girl in pink spread a towel down in the centre of the stadium, and applied her sunscreen.

Even as the audience blinked, the scene changed -- to the deep blue of the ocean. As concealed wires lifted Nikki high overhead, the stadium took on the colouring, and air of the depths of the ocean.

The deep blue stadium was swamped with seahorses, fish, bluebottles, and assorted other sea creatures. Others floated in the air, swimming past Nikki as she floated free as an angel -- or, more appropriately, a mermaid -- high over the heads of the crowds.

For the audience, it was the feel of being in a bathysphere, sunk below the surface of an ocean, captive audience to the myriad wonders of the deep-sea depths.

Meryl Tankard, choreographer for the segment, was turningin a flawless performance.

The Aboriginal Connection

The youthful flair and colour of the opening segment shifted, in mood and tenor, to an older, more sober mood as the aborigines joined the party. The ocean vanished, to be replaced by the burnt earth of Australia as a lone aborigine walked out into the centre of the stadium, quickly joined there by a flock of aboriginal women and young European children, symbolising the reconciliation process, singing a tribal chant.

Aboriginal chief Djakapurra Munyarryun performs during the Opening Ceremony In between, men strutted the stadium on giant, six-metre tall stilts with mohawk headpieces and spliced handpieces. An enormous spiritual symbol -- a face with eyes and nose but no mouth -- soared high above the ground.

Spectacular though it all was, it was the crowd that stole the show in this segment. As they trooped in through the turnstiles, every member of the crowd had been given a schoolbag, filled with various souvenirs and items they were meant to use in course of the show.

The first such item -- a small armband with a red light on it. On cue, the armbands came out and were lit, as the aborigines prayed to the gods of fire and thunder.

110,000 flickering flames lighting the stadium -- what words can capture the magic of the moment?

Those tiny sparks appeared to have set off an enormous fire -- as a bevy of fire-breathers entered the field, fiery flames issuing from their mouths, the smoke, the flames, the flickering armbands all bathing the surroundings in bursts of burnt orange-angry-red-smoky-black.

The Fire segment, in comparison to the Sea portion that preceeded it, is short.

Nature reborn

Bush fires are the biggest danger in the Australian interior. But yet, after each devastating fire, nature is reborn. As it was, in the stadium, which burst into renewed life. Wild pinks, striking greends, huge red Waratahs, the symbol of New South Wales, flooded the stadium alongside wattles, bottle brushes, assorted other flora and fauna as thousands of people, decked up to represent nature at its most joyous and colourful, streamed in to the stadium while the aborigines trooped out at the other end.

Tin Symphony

Nature yielded, as it must and always has, to people as the 'plants' wandered out, and the settlers wandered in. What followed, was a recreation of the origins of the land.

An enormous bike, camouflaged to represent the fleet of ships that brought the first British convicts -- Australia's original settlers -- to the country in 1788 took centre stage.

From its innards spilled 100 men wearing headpieces with holes in them, signifying the headgear made famous by Ned Kelly -- most infamous of Australia's bush criminals.

The sea had yielded to fire, fire to nature. Now it was the turn of man-made metal -- in this case, tin -- to take over the stadium. Again, a reflection of the Australian outback, where everything from homes to dinner plates to you name its are made of tin.

Girls in Blundstone boots added a piquant touch, dancing on panels of corrugated iron, their feet creating a tinny tap-dance effect while a line of whip-crackers at the far end of the stadium added to the awesome symphony with rhythmic flourishes of their whips. Providing a percussive underpinning was that other Australian icon -- the wood-cutters, their axes thumping into logs picked, presumably, for maximum resonance.

A wild medley of Australian life in the raw unfolded, with guitars, beer-swilling workers, sheep, sheepdogs all collaborating in a what seemed an unfolding of history before our eyes.

From the historic to the contemporary, as 100 fresh entrants, dressed in bright shirts and shorts and wearing fishermen's hats, trundled their lawnmovers -- an image, perhaps, of modern Australia? -- into the centre of the stadium. This lot should think of hiring themselves out -- seemingly without effort, they manipulate their lawn-movers and lo, the Olympic rings materialise on the floor of the stadium.

A humongous horse, neighing fit to bust, wandered onto the ground, and made its way across to exit the other end -- a signal of sorts, that one segment was over, and the other about to begin.

The Immigrant experience

Australia is a melting pot of cultures, and the next segment was a celebration of the early immigrants from Europe, Asia, Latin America, all coming together, arrayed in their own colourful costumes, in spectacular pageant, celebrating their own part in the Australian population in colourful song and dance.

Out come the schoolbags again, as the crowd takes out mini torches and waves them overhead, creating the impression of fairy lights lighting up the entire stadium.

Nikki Webster, the unifying aspect of the diverse show, reappears to sing Under the Southern Skies, the lyrics of which celebrate the multi-cultural experience. Nikki, whose credits include a starring role in a recent recreation of the musical Sound of Music, and who has sung onstage with Michael Jackson, is in fine voice here.

As her song ends, the tap dancers, led by Australian group Tap Dogs, take over, in flannel shirts and jeans, with heavy boots drumming a percussive tattoo that is picked up by the crowd's handclaps. The tap group perform on a star-shaped platform, their leader being hoisted high overhead on a metallic disc.

And finally, select groups from each of the earlier segments wnder back on, but the ground is dominated by a typical Australian image -- young men and women, casually clad in jeans and Ts, with checked shirts tied around their waists, dancing to the music while, on the periphery, their fellows hold metal plates that pick up, and reflect, the myriad lights of the stadium. A very young, very contemporary, image, which with a minimum of fuss encapsulates the Australian ethos of youth, freshness, joie de vivre.

The segment ends with a mini-firework display, the pyrotechnics forming an image of the Harbour Bridge with the word 'Eternity' blazing on it.

While the crowd is distracted by the fireworks, the girls walk out of the stadium -- and the Olympics 2000 band, made up of around 2,500 musicians drawn from the participating nations, marches on to centrestage.

Which makes it the largest marching band ever assembled in history.

There was a bit of a fuss raised about this during the buildup to the Games, with one section demanding an all-Aussie band. But maturer councils prevailed -- and judging by the music that blared forth from the colourfully arrayed band, musicians the world over can speak a common language -- and speak it well.

Considering that they all came together only nine days ago, they speak the language very, very well indeed.

If the music was food for the ears, then the gyrations of the various segments of the band, as they wheeled and marched in formation, was eye-candy of a stunning sort. Myriad shapes and patterns were created on the floor of the stadium as trumpets streamed past drummers, while the nine bandmasters twirled their batons in flamboyant fashion as they conducted Ode To Joy.

The real stunner, though, came as the band segued into the strains of Waltzing Matilda. That over 2000 musicians can play in such harmony, on such short notice, is special. That they can march in perfect unison while strutting their stuff, even more so. But that they could, with no visible effort, match their steps and their collective movements to form an image of the Sydney 2000 symbol -- the stylised runner racing through the Olympics rings -- was quite simply breathtaking.

As Waltzing Matilda wound to a close, the band moved away to a corner of the field. To make way for the ral stars of this extravaganza -- the athletes, coming into the stadium behind their respective flags for the formal march-past that, traditionally, flags off the Olympics.

Log back in a bit later in the programme, for the full story of the march past, and the lighting of the Olympic torch.

Photographs: Reuters

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