By JIM KERNAGHAN -- Free Press Sports Columnist
A young couple from New Zealand was speaking with a pair of relatively jaded sports writers on the train to Olympic Park Friday when the woman went to the heart of the Olympic Games.
"Well, it brings the whole world under one friendly roof for two weeks, doesn't it?" Mandy said.
Yes, it does and when you wash away the stains of such blights as performance drugs and bribing of officials, it's a powerful institution. Potentially the most powerful on earth.
Its reputation besmirched, its very existence called into question, it always seems to stand up and shine through. People around the world had to get a glimpse of Olympic worth with a single glance during the opening ceremony.
There, marching in together, were the two Koreas, North and South, after more than 50 years of war.
Anything is possible.
It isn't the Games that drew them together. Economics played a greater role. But the image is not lost for a world TV audience of 3.7 billion.
People are more alike than they are different and every Olympic march-in underlines it. No other friendly roof exists for 200 nations.
Counting the Winter Olympics, every couple of years the world gets a chance to pause and party. It's a welcome breather in a hostile world.
As expected, the Australians kicked off their first Olympics in 44 years with a boffo show that still echoes through the streets. These people do enjoy a good time.
Even golfer Greg Norman took a run with the torch as 110,000 in new Stadium Australia settled back to watch a slam-bang show kicked off by 120 stockmen (cowboys) galloping in to form the Olympic rings.
Then the entire place became an aquarium in a dreamscape using 11 cables suspended 45 metres from the stadium floor to hold giant fish found around the 36,000 kilometres of Australian shoreline.
The theme turned brushfire, then giant flowers emerging from the scorched earth and high into the air. It moved through Aboriginal history, to pioneering times, to the modern era. At one point, the largest marching band ever assembled, 2,000 members, brought new scale to music that included Olivia Newton-John.
Ever since the flame was lit via arrow at Barcelona eight years ago, slam-bang finales are in vogue. But neither Barcelona or Muhammad Ali lighting the Atlanta torch in 1996 compared to this one.
Seven former star Australian Olympians, all female in the Olympic Year of the Woman, relayed the torch the final lap before it was taken by current 400-metres star Cathy Freeman. She jogged up to a waterfall-fed wading pool near the top of the stadium, went to the centre of it and lit a ring at water level surrounding her. Suddenly, it rose, encasing her in a curtain of water before filling in to a cauldron and shooting the Olympic flame high into the cool early spring air. People are still talking about it.
But for all its symbolism and beauty, it was less profound than the march-in. It's an unchanging scene, really, original Olympic nation Greece first, host nation last. But it's a moving one all the same.
When the entire house enthusiastically applauded the two Koreas, it came close to reaching the greater values of the Olympic Games.