Former Olympic figure skating silver medalist Midori Ito lit the cauldron at the Minami Nagano Sports Park stadium Saturday to mark the opening of the 18th Olympic Winter Games -- the last winter Olympics of the century.|
Ito, dressed in white robe like some ancient shamaness, received the Olympic torch from women's marathon world champion Hiromi Suzuki and transferred the flame to the cauldron where it will burn throughout the 16-day games.
In keeping with the peace appeal of the organizing committee, the Olympic torch was carried into the stadium by British anti-land mine activist Chris Moon, who lost parts of his right limbs in a land mine explosion three years ago in Mozambique.
Moon ran into the stadium surrounded by local schoolchildren dressed in costumes bearing colors of the flags of the winter-games record 72 countries taking part in the Olympics.
Nearly 2,400 athletes will vie for Olympic honors in 68 events, surpassing the previous record of 1,739 athletes who competed in 61 sports events four years ago in Lillehammer, Norway.
Conductor Seiji Ozawa led a live global chorus performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, linking five cities on five continents with Nagano in the grand finale of the opening ceremony of the 16-day winter sports spectacular.
Two hundred singers each in Sydney, New York, Beijing, Berlin and at False Bay near Cape Town in South Africa sang along with a 2,000-strong chorus at the stadium while Ozawa conducted the eight soloists and an orchestra at the Nagano Prefectural Culture Hall.
The picture broadcasts from overseas and the culture hall were shown on giant screens placed in the opening ceremony arena.
The two-hour program, opening at 11 a.m. in central Japan, was well-received by the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), according to IOC Press Commission head Kevan Gosper.
''The program had a good message, but it was not a heavy. I think it was a good time of day for the Japanese people also, because it was warm,'' Gosper said.
Some 50,000 spectators and millions of television viewers around the world saw the oriental culture of Japan mixed with western art as the ceremony, beamed to 160 countries, began with the ringing of the 400-year-old bell at the Zenkoji Temple.
The Buddhist temple, which dates back more than a millennium, is considered a religious centerpiece of both Nagano and Japan.
The onlookers then got more of a taste of Japanese tradition as residents of nearby localities raised eight ''onbashira'' log pillars in the stadium -- a custom practiced in Nagano for more than 1,000 years to purify the land -- followed by another ritual.
According to tradition in sumo, yokozuna Akebono performed the ''dohyo-iri'' ring purification ceremony, the symbolic calling of the attention of the gods and expelling the evil spirits from the competition venue.
''I believe the foreigners who watched the traditional rituals were able to understand them,'' said Makoto Kobayashi, director general of the Nagano Olympic organizing committee (NAOC), after the ceremony was completed.
Some 150 students danced and sang the Nagano Games peace appeal song just before IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch implored, ''Let us build together for (our youth) a peaceful and better world.''
Samaranch said in closing his speech, ''We are sure that these Games will be a great success,'' and thanked Japan and Nagano in Japanese.
Emperor Akihito declared the games open at 12:28 p.m. as some 3,500 athletes and officials assembled in southern Nagano under partially overcast skies to witness the start of the largest winter sports extravaganza in history.
The sports competition began Saturday afternoon with the men's ice hockey preliminaries at the Big Hat and Aqua Wing ice arenas in Nagano.
Nagano is the third city in Japan to host the Olympics, following the 1964 summer Games in Tokyo and the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo. (Kyodo News)