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Lighting the fire within as Olympic Games begin



Published: Mon, February 11, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Olympic Games have come to the United States at just the right time.

Friday night, a record number of Americans watched on their televisions as the 19th Winter Olympiad opened in Salt Lake City.

Anyone who watched from the singing of "God Bless America" by a New York City firefighter to the last burst of red, white and blue fireworks over the stadium witnessed an amazing spectacle.

It involved Noble Prize winners helping to carry the Olympic flag and firefighters and police officers from New York City, who accompanied the American flag that flew atop the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11. It involved, of course, more than 2,000 Olympic competitors and their coaches in parade. It involved a cast of 5,000 -- a few headliners, but mostly volunteers from the ages of 6 to 70. And it involved 55,000 spectators, who were issued white ponchos, flashlights and colored cards that made them a part of the spectacle.

But more than that, it involved all Americans who are willing to say that, yes, this nation suffered a terrible blow, and, yes, we are at war with terrorism, but we are not a nation that is easily broken. We welcomed the athletes of 76 other nations to America and demonstrated to the world that the spirit of the Olympics is alive in Salt Lake City, Utah, and throughout the United States of America.

One picture: President Bush was not only there to greet the athletes of the world, he joined the American team in the stands. In a touching vignette, the camera captured 17-year-old figure skater Sasha Cohen handing him her cell phone. She had asked him to talk to her mother, and he obliged.

Galina Cohen of Laguna Niguel, Calif., told reporters later that he first identified himself, asked her where she lived and told her that her daughter was well behaved. The message he sent to the nation was that life is returning to normal -- not the same, certainly, the security efforts at this Olympics are testament to that, but to normal.

The theme of the opening ceremony was "Light the Fire Within," and used as its central character a small boy whose inner fire led him to safety from a raging storm. Such is the power of fire and light.

When the Olympic torch was lighted by members of the 1980 U.S. gold medal-winning hockey team, it illuminated this nation's spirit. While this is a different world than when the United States last hosted the Winter Games 22 years ago, we remain a nation that values and honors the ideals of Olympic competition.

The fire that burns within Utah will be seen throughout the world for the next two weeks. But its light will last much longer.




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