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Winter Olympics open with a celebration of American heroes past and present

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Under a layer of fresh snow and a blanket of unprecedented security, America welcomed home the Winter Olympics with an emotional opening tribute Friday night to its heroes, from the pioneers of the West to the thousands who perished on Sept. 11.

In a powerful display that launched the nation's first Winter Games in 22 years, an honor guard of U.S. athletes, accompanied by New York police and firefighters, entered Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium clutching the tattered flag recovered from the ashes of the World Trade Center.

A hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the fragile banner, a giant hole ripped through the red and white stripes.

Some 2.5 hours after the ceremony began, Mike Eruzione and rest of 1980 gold-medal winning U.S. hockey team lighted the Olympic cauldron.

And the games officially began.

It all started with the flag processional that entered the stadium to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as President Bush watched along with International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.

"Your nation is overcoming a horrific tragedy - a tragedy that has affected the whole world," Rogge said. "We stand united with you in the promotion of our common ideals, and hope for world peace."

For a home crowd bedecked in red, white and blue, the ceremony marked a break from a five-month mourning period defined by terrorism and war, anthrax and economic woes.

This night, before a sold-out crowd of 55,000 spectators and a worldwide televised audience of 3 billion, provided America with a chance to celebrate. The party had a perfect setting: the soaring Wasatch Mountains, wrapped in several new inches of fresh snow.

"This is an opportunity for us to put America's best foot forward," said Sandy Baldwin, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We are psyched, and it's 'Go, USA!"'

It all culminated with the arrival of the Olympic flame, following a 13,500-mile journey through 46 states, and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

"On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games," Bush said, departing from the traditional Olympic declaration to include a patriotic preface.

Later, as Bush stood amid U.S. athletes, figure skater Sasha Cohen handed the president her cell phone for him to say a few words to her friends or family. He took the phone with a smile and obliged.

The crowd braved 15-mph wind and temperatures as low as 16 to attend the three-hour spectacular that kicked off 17 days of competition in skiing, skating and sledding. But the weather hardly matched the challenges presented by a security system designed to be extraordinarily tight because of terrorism concerns.

The $310 million security plan is the most extensive and expensive for a sporting event. During the next two weeks, 16,000 soldiers, Secret Service agents, police and volunteers will search spectators, patrol venues and monitor the skies for possible threats.

Extra precautions were taken during the opening ceremony: Salt Lake International Airport suspended all flights for four hours during the event and the light rail system that usually runs to the stadium was shut down.

Outside Rice-Eccles, spectators waited to pass through metal detectors manned by troops in camouflage while Black Hawk helicopters hovered above.

Once inside, they were rewarded with a show honoring the untamed spirit of the American West and the newfound patriotism of a nation tested by harrowing acts of terrorism on its soil.

Jeff Mansell, of Salt Lake City, and his two children huddled in their stadium seats for hours before the ceremony began. "It's really fun," said 8-year-old Megan, her nose running. "The Olympics are here!"

The games' theme, "Light the Fire Within," was meant to represent the inspirational power of the Olympics and its athletes, and the opening ceremony certainly reflected it.

Before the start of the celebration, New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez sang a stirring rendition of "God Bless America." The crowd, some waving American flags, joined in during the final verse.

The ceremony officially got under way with a clang of chimes as skaters glided onto an ice rink looping around the field. Fireworks exploded overhead, ushering in the entrance of Bush and the World Trade Center flag. Organizers had hoped to raise the banner during the ceremony, but its frail condition made that impossible.

A 12-year-old boy, symbolically known as the Child of Light, was introduced to the world. The child, representing the ability of the human spirit to overcome life's adversities, will remain a theme throughout the games and at the closing ceremony on Feb. 24.

He and hundreds of other children, holding lanterns, bathed the stadium in light as athletes from 77 countries strode in behind their national flags. Greece, as always, led the way, with the home team bringing up the rear.

Several countries, including Italy, France and Ireland, waved miniature American flags in a show of unity to the host nation.

A jubilant cry rose from the crowd as the Americans made their grand entrance, donned in blue berets and waving flags of their own as they beamed and shouted greetings to the crowd. Short-track speedskater Amy Peterson, a three-time Olympic medal winner, led the way with the stars and stripes hoisted high into a night sky glowing with thousands of sparkling flashlights.

If the call sign at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney was "G'day", this one was a hearty "Howdy!"

The show brimmed with a uniquely Western flavor - from Indian flute players to a reenactment of the legendary journey by Spanish explorers and Mormon pioneers.

One hundred drummers, representing Utah's five major Indian tribes, filled the stadium with a heart-pounding, rhythmic accompaniment to ceremonial dances that showcased the history and culture of the West's first inhabitants.

Hundreds of skaters clad in prairie skirts and cowboy hats joined in a giant on-ice hoe-down, square-dancing to the fiddle-playing Dixie Chicks. "Y'all ready?" lead singer Natalie Maines shouted to the crowd, which roared in response.

Some 2,526 athletes will compete for 477 medals in 78 events - the largest contingent and program for a Winter Games. The action starts Saturday with competition in moguls, cross-country skiing, hockey, figure skating and speedskating.

These Winter Games, the first on U.S. soil since the Lake Placid Olympics, will occur as they did back then - on hillsides ringing with chants of "USA! USA!" and homegrown fans waving stars and stripes.

Organizers, however, went out of their way to make these Olympics the "world's games," not only America's.

But on this night, there was little doubt whose games these were as the celebration got under way.

And for the next two weeks, no matter how many medals are won or lost, these will undoubtedly remain America's games.

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