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Let the Games begin

Solemn Japanese traditions helped open the 1998 Winter Games here Saturday morning before a subdued crowd of 50,000 at a baseball stadium shaped like a cherry blossom.

The two-hour ceremony that introduced this isolated Japanese city to the world featured lumbering sumo wrestlers wearing nothing but draped loinclothes, bouncy schoolchildren dressed as haystacks, two-ton tree trunks and a song sung simultaneously on five continents.Mary Gaddie, who's in charge of planning the opening ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, said she was excited and inspired by what she saw.

"It was a wonderful idea to link continents and the universal language of music," Gaddie said, referring to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," sung simultaneously in Berlin; Sydney, Australia; New York; Beijing; and Cape Point, South Africa.

There was a touch of Japanese culture there, too, with ballet dancers igniting four kagaribi bonfires around the center stage while performing a symbolic dance about winter sports.

Salt Lake City will focus on the American West as well as the rest of the United States during its opening ceremonies four years from now at University of Utah's Rice Stadium.

Gaddie said every city has to come up with its own way of presenting itself to the world. "Each one is very different. Each one is surrounded in the culture of that city," she said.

SLOC expects to start looking for an opening ceremony producer soon. "Then the creative part comes in, the stories we want to tell. That part hasn't started yet," Gaddie said.

The crowd that gathered under overcast skies Saturday morning (Friday evening in the United States) didn't seem as excited as Gaddie. They came alive only when the Japanese delegation marched into the stadium, waving Rising Sun flags in unison.

Athletes from the record 72 countries that sent teams to Nagano paraded into the stadium midway through the production. Besides the Japanese delegation, the audience seemed most excited to see the American team.

Much of the rest of the time, their response to what is the biggest production of any Olympic Games was restrained. Olympic officials have expressed concerns that there hasn't been enough enthusiasm in Japan for the Games.

But International Olympic Committee officials had also taken care to stress that the opening ceremonies should be about bringing the world together for peaceful competition rather than show business.

These ceremonies fit that bill, with only a few production numbers in addition to the required speeches and the ceremonial light-ing of the Olympic cauldron, which will burn throughout the 16 days of the Games.

Among the torch-bearers who carried the flame into the stadium was Chris Moon, an activist against land mines who lost his right arm and leg while attempting to remove one of the deadly devices.

The cauldron itself was lit by a kimono-clad Midori Ito, the much-loved Japanese figure skater who won a silver medal at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

The ceremony began with the ringing of the bell at Nagano's chief tourist attraction, the Zenkoji Temple. Another portion of the cere-mony with spiritual overtones was a purification ritual from the Suwa region of Nagano.

That involved raising giant pillars hewn from trees brought down from the mountains. Eight of the two-ton trunks, called onbashira, were uprighted in the corners of the stadium by 1,000 brightly costumed area residents to the sound of a traditional chant.