Mark Twain described the American West as the land of enchantment. Friday night, tribal chiefs, ice skaters, dancers, puppets and musicians treated 52,000 spectators in Rick-Eccles Olympic Stadium and a television audience of 3.5 billion viewers to a stunning display of Western artistry, history and patriotism during opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Games.
To the many Utahns who had collective anxiety whether the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake Games would in any way compare to those of the showy 2000 Sydney Summer Games: Rest easy. The ceremonies were a fabulous union of culture, Utah history, sport and theater a sensory treat for eyes and ears.
To a larger concern, the $310 million security effort was worth every penny. The blanket of security enveloping these Games resulted in an incident-free opening ceremonies. The intense security meant spectators had to leave for events hours in advance of the ceremonies, but once the festivities began, impatience and 20-degree temperatures were overcome by excitement and the spirited pageantry of an opening ceremonies that ranged the gamut of a duet by cellist Yo Yo Ma and Sting to an old fashioned hoedown, part of it staged on ice.
Even Mother Nature lent a hand, with fresh coat of snow along the Wasatch Front and a break in earlier wind gusts that organizers feared would topple puppets and other large props.
In short, it was a spectacular launch to the 19th Winter Games.
One of the most moving moments of the ceremonies occurred at the start the solemn procession accompanying the ground zero flag. Recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the flag was carried by eight athletes, each representing their respective Winter Olympic sports, and two police officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Fifty-two thousand audience members came to a standstill at the sight of the tattered American flag, as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony joined in the national anthem.
Another of the most memorable moments came near the end of the festivities as members of the 1980 United States hockey team jointly lit the Olympic caldron, commemorating the team's "miracle on ice," the defeat of then-Cold War foe the Soviet Union in the Lake Placid Games. In the successive years, the fall of the Soviet Union has led to such improved relations that Russia has offered its help in the United States' ongoing war on terror.
The Sept. 11 attacks were an obvious backdrop to the opening ceremonies, necessitating the most massive security buildup for any athletic event in history.
President Bush strode into Olympic Stadium in an assured fashion, which spoke volumes about his resolve that these Olympics go on as scheduled and his confidence in the Games security. Standing among the United States athletes, Bush resolutely declared the Games open on behalf of "a proud, determined and grateful nation."
The Sept. 11 attacks also added intrigue to the parade of nations, during which athletes from all reaches of globe participated in a common ceremony. Although the crowd reception was more robust for some countries than others, every nation received at least polite applause, a credit to the audience's sportsmanship. The largest response was reserved for the delegation of the host nation. Team USA was escorted by Utahn Liz Howell, whose husband, Brady, perished in the attack on the Pentagon.
Overall, the ceremony was a tasteful balance of tribute, spirituality and history. While headliners Sting, Ma, Dixie Chicks and LeAnn Rimes provided star power to opening ceremonies, none demanded the spotlight. Rather, their contributions artfully melded with those lesser known professionals and volunteer performers.
Some 5,000 Utah volunteers endured hundreds of hours of rehearsals, often in sub-freezing temperatures, to perfect an extravaganza that chronicled Utah's rich history. Mormon pioneers shared the stage with stunningly life-like puppets, many of them controlled by people on skates. Particularly impressive was a massive bison puppet that required multiple handlers as well as a re-creation of a pivotal moment in Utah history, the joining of the transcontinental railroad.
Of particular note were representatives of the five tribal nations in Utah, who offered greeting and blessings to the athletes, each tribal leader speaking in his or her native tongue. What a dignified representation of this great state's first inhabitants.
This morning after, Utah has just cause to be proud of these opening ceremonies. Utahns thank producer Don Mischer for his artistic genius and the countless individuals whose collective talents launched the 2002 Winter Games in spectacular fashion.
On with the Games!