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From the Archives: The Nagano Olympic Games opened 25 years ago

The XVIII Winter Olympics opened in Nagano, Japan 25 years ago. Among the prime-time highlights from 16 days of competition were Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan finishing with gold and silver for the U.S. in women’s figure skating.

From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Saturday Feb. 7, 1998:

Modern twists on traditions

The Games begin with a ceremony of contrasts in a land of contrasts

By Mark Zeigler, Staff Writer

The XVIII Winter Olympics opened when a shirtless 516-pound sumo wrestler purified the stadium with thunderous foot stomps and a 90-pound figure skater wearing a kimono delicately touched the torch to the caldron.

Greece, traditionally first in the parade of nations, was led by another Japanese sumo behemoth. On his shoulders sat Eisuke Shimizu, a tiny girl from a Japanese elementary school.

It was a ceremony of contrasts in a land of contrasts at an Olympics of contrasts. The two-hour spectacle last night — San Diego time — featured the traditional virtues the Olympics strive to attain, and the corruptive modern influences they claim to resist.

There was the ringing of the 302-year-old bell at Zenkoji temple and the erecting of the onbashira pillars and the dohyo-iri purification ceremony by sumo legend Akebono. Giant fans parted at the base of the caldron to reveal Midori Ito, Japan’s version of Peggy Fleming, adorned in an extravagant red and white kimono that was modeled after what an empress wore in 3000 B.C.

But there were also members of the Kenyan cross-country ski team, walking in the athletes’ procession with Nike sunglasses on their foreheads. There was an 11 a.m. start time in Nagano so CBS could televise it live in prime time to the East Coast, where it was 9 p.m. yesterday.

And there was the blue coat worn by International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. On one breast were the five Olympic rings. On the other, nearly as big, was a Mizuno sporting goods logo.

Beneath the commercial overtones, beneath the Mizuno patch, were political undertones. There has not been a full-scale boycott at an Olympics since 1984, but the Games remain inexorably tied to the political whims of the planet.

Four years ago in Lillehammer, Norway, Samaranch departed from his prepared speech to issue an impassioned plea for peace in Bosnia. In Nagano, the third paragraph on his brief remarks referred to a resolution ratified by the United Nations last November to refrain from warfare during the Games, which close Feb. 22.

“It is therefore our hope that the appeal of the 185 member states of the United Nations to observe the Olympic Truce will foster international dialogue and diplomatic solutions to all conflicts, in an effort to bring human tragedies to an end,” Samaranch said sternly in English.
He spoke to 50,000 people in a stadium in central Japan. Between the lines, he spoke to President Clinton and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In the athletes’ procession, normal protocol calls for the nations to march in alphabetical order of the language of the host country. But Taiwan, as Chinese Taipei, would have come immediately after China, and both refused, CBS reported.

Instead, the nations marched alphabetically in English. China entered the stadium after Chile; Taiwan followed Switzerland.

The 196-member U.S. contingent, the largest of the record 72 in Nagano, was led by Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler Musashimaru and Serina Saito of a Japanese junior high school. The flag bearer was speedskater Eric Flaim, 30, of Pembroke, Mass.

This is Flaim’s fourth Olympic appearance. He competed in 1988 and 1992 in long-track speedskating, then switched to short-track speedskating in Lillehammer in 1994.

An athletes committee chose Flaim as flag bearer while he was on a plane over the Pacific Ocean.

As Flaim walked through customs at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, he was handed a fax by a U.S. representative. Dazed from the 14-hour journey, he began to fold it up and stuff it in his pocket.

The woman said, “Uh, you might want to take a look at that.”

Flaim has been skating on cloud nine ever since. Flaim said he woke up five times the night before Opening Ceremonies, thinking about the honor and about his late father.

The American team wore white turtle necks, dark blue jackets and blue felt cowboy hats. Among them was 4-foot-10, 82-pound figure skater Tara Lipinski, the smallest and, at 15, the youngest member of the team.

Lipinski does not compete until the middle of the second week, but she urged her coach and parents to allow her to arrive early. Her two teammates in ladies singles, Michelle Kwan and Nicole Bobek, watched Opening Ceremonies on television from their training base in Lake Arrowhead.

The compromise for marching in the Opening Ceremonies was that Lipinski would fly to Osaka and train there for the week before returning for the competition. Now, reportedly, she is rebelling and wants to stay.

“It’s just a lot of fun, so many things to do,” Lipinski said. “I think that’s what the Olympics are all about, meeting other people and doing fun things with them. It’s not just a skating event, where you go back to your hotel and you only see other skaters.”

The Olympics can be a powerful force indeed. Politically. Culturally. Emotionally.

Japanese are taught to have omote and ura, a front and a back, an outside and an inside — one a reserved public facade, the other true personal feelings. As the world watched, Ito stood resolute with the torch in her hand and turned to light the Olympic caldron.

As she turned back, a large tear rolled down her cheek.

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