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  • Saturday, September 12, 1998

    Opening ceremonies were as good as they get

    By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun
      KUALA LUMPUR - The 1998 Olympic G . . .
     Sorry. Let's start again. The 1998 Commonwealth Games opened in a blaze of colour and glory as 4,208 athletes and 2,460 officials from 70 nations - the largest participation ever - were treated to a show of shows in the middle of Malaysia.
     What was wrong with this picture?
     Absolutely nothing. It was picture-perfect.
     If there has been a long-standing tie between Edmonton '78 and Brisbane '82 for best opening ceremonies in Commonwealth Games history, Kuala Lumpur broke it here last night. No contest. No comparison.
     No way you felt like you were at the Commonwealth Games. You were at the Olympics.
     And no way you felt like you were in a Commonwealth Stadium. The XVI Games were opened in a 21st-Century Olympic Stadium. There isn't a stadium in Canada or the U.S. that can compare to the state-of-the-art, 100,000-seat main stadium where Canada led all countries marching into the surreal scene. And to contemplate going from here to Winnipeg Stadium for the opening ceremonies of the next major world multi-sports festival, next year's Pan-Am Games ... well, it just doesn't compute.
     There's every expectation that we'll be back here in a few days with next to nobody in the stands for track and field. But give them this spectacular day.
     Kuala Lumpur, for openers, was wonderful.
     "The heat was almost unbearable and we had no water, but what an exciting experience,'' said Patti Pilsner-Steinke, a hammer thrower from Lethbridge. "They put everything into it, and I thought the most spectacular moment was when the Malaysian team walked in. The energy in the stadium was just incredible.''
     Vancouver 800-metre runner Diane Cummins said she almost didn't march because of the heat, and found herself still in the stadium long after common sense drove half the team back to the village.
     "It was outstanding. It's always a big decision for an athlete whether or not to march in conditions like this because it takes so much out of you. But that was definitely worth it.''
     The Canadians didn't win the costuming contest but were one of the more distinctive big teams, using a simple jacket shell and track pants combination to display a huge Canada goose logo.
     As previous hosts (Victoria) the Canadians were the first team to march into the stadium, and established a fun attitude as they sailed hundreds of Frisbees into the lower level of the stands.
     But Samoa stole the show. With one bare-chested athlete performing a tribal dance, a dozen other members of the group stopped every 50 metres to do the Haka. The crowd went crazy.
     Scotland, wearing a unique combination of Malaysian dress with traditional kilt, followed the Samoans and were totally upstaged.
     When Singapore marched into the stadium they were booed. I've covered 20 major Games and I can't remember a country being booed before. The Malaysians were showing their displeasure with their wealthy next-door neighbours sending a token team about the same size as Nauru's, a country with a population of 11,000.
     Malaysia, despite an economy in shambles, hasn't done much second-guessing about spending the big bucks on these Games. And when the Malaysians marched into the stadium, the reaction said they were sold. It was worth it.
     The real memory-maker, though, was a show in the stands, the human graphics performance of a 4,840 person team flashing cards of 16 different colours while occupying all the seats between goal lines in the middle deck of the three-deck stadium. They'd been holding 4,840-person practices for eight months and were flawless. All together 287 different graphics - including the flags of the 70 countries as the athletes marched into the stadium. Absolutely amazing.
     For the first time in the history of these Games that are providing so many firsts - first in Asia, first with team sports - a monarch other than the King or Queen of England opened the games. Raja Permaisuri Agong performed the duties. Queen Elizabeth will close the Games.
     The Queen's message was delivered in the Queen's Baton, which arrived in the main square of Kuala Lumpur on elephant-back at the start of the ceremonies, and was run in relay to the stadium while the athletes marched in.
     Edmonton '78 badminton gold medal winner Sylvia Ng took the last lap with the baton and handed it off to Goh Eng Thong, a 70-year-old weightlifter who won Malaysia's first-ever medal, in the fourth Commonwealth Games, to take the final few feet to Prince Edward.
     He was no Muhammad Ali. But not bad.

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