Saturday, August 14, 2004

Pageantry trumps politics as parade opens Olympics

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ATHENS - They didn't boo the United States. They didn't offer more than a passing, shrill whistle, the European expression of displeasure. American athletes have come to these Olympics hoping for the best and bracing for the worst. It's never a bad time to be an American visiting the world. Occasionally, it's not quite as good. Such as now.

The athletes didn't know what to expect, marching into a full Olympic stadium, shaking small American flags and aiming even smaller camcorders. Neither did the rest of us. What the world thinks of the United States now is not much. Would the Greeks - informed lovers of politics, proud owners of the original democracy - pass harsh judgment on America by jeering its best and brightest jocks?

Not Friday night. The hosts were more intent on celebrating the night than politicizing it. They cheered politely. They also reserved one of their lustier approvals for the 20-member Iraqi delegation in what was perhaps a show of respect for what the Iraqis are overcoming, or maybe a left-handed slap at the United States.

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Regardless, after months of doubt, Greece pulled off an Opening Ceremony as spectacular and thoughtful as its organizers promised it would be.

From the breathtaking first act - a 30-minute re-enactment of 6,000 years of Greek history and achievement - to the raucous cheers that greeted the home team, the hosts showed that, for one night at least, the fears and jeers were misguided.

Basketball player Dawn Staley carried the American flag, leading the U.S. delegation into the stadium. Staley is a two-time Olympic gold medallist, whose resume reads like a prototype for the Ideal Olympian:

Raised in the Raymond Rosen housing project in Philadelphia. Two-time NCAA player of the year at Virginia. Plays for the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA. Coaches the Temple University women, who have averaged 18 wins a year in her four years there. Established in 1996 the Dawn Staley Foundation, an after-school program that provides food and tutoring for inner-city Philly kids. Her first graduates will enroll in college this year.

Maybe because they were warned against it, or maybe owing to the current, sobering times, the Americans didn't preen as they made their way around the stadium. Some, such as basketball player Allen Iverson, looked downright bored. Cincinnati boxers Ron Siler Jr. and Rau'Shee Warren walked together, waving and laughing.

For many, it was, literally, the walk of a lifetime. To get from dreaming about the Olympics to walking a quarter-mile around the Olympic track requires more than most will ever realize.

"You'll have tears in your eyes, both for his accomplishments as an individual and for his country," said John Ketchum, father of swimmer and Sycamore High graduate Dan Ketchum. "All the years he has put in, this is the ultimate in terms of accomplishment in his sport. This is it."

Ginny Jasontek was in the stadium. Chances are good she was fighting tears and losing. Her daughter Becky, a synchronized swimmer from Loveland, marched with the U.S. team, five years after a ruptured ovarian cyst nearly killed her.

Becky Jasontek went to the 2000 Olympics, as an alternate. She wasn't even allowed to stay in the Athletes Village. Friday night, beneath a warm Greek sky full of stars, she became a star herself.

"We all wanted it for her," Ginny said, "but she needed to have the passion herself. It's a dream. But you pay for the dream every day." Ginny, founder of the Synchro-Gators in Cincinnati, is working at the Games, as a technical official for synchronized swimming.

"I'm already emotional," she had said more than a week ago. "My whole family is."

As usual, the march of the athletes ran beyond its appointed time, but who was going to deny them that walk? Who would begrudge the delegation from India, its men wearing orange turbans? Who could possibly slight the Tongans? They set fashion back (or, who knows, ahead) a couple hundred years.

On Friday, the Tongans walked the walk dressed in red blazers and what looked like tablecloths wrapped around their waists.

Cut the march short and few might never know the difference between Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Papua New Guinea. Or that there was a difference. Nobody would see the pride in the faces of the 15-member Afghan delegation, or wonder about the power of the human spirit that delivered them here.

As Becky Jasontek said, "You may have dreamed about this (Opening Ceremony) your whole life. But until it happens, you have no idea."

We do. A little. Something about the opening of the Olympics gets us all hoping again. We celebrate, for the smallest time, how good we can be, when the urge strikes us to be good. The human pageant is often brief, but never dim.

The local Olympic slogan is "Athens 2004. Welcome Home." It was a good homecoming Friday. Let it be so 16 days hence.



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