Saturday, February 7, 1997
Torch burns for new era

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sumo wrestlers perform a purification ceremony during the Opening Cerermonies.
(AP photos)
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NAGANO - To find the Key to Paradise, one must first descend into darkness.

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Beneath the inner sanctuary of Zenkoji Temple, down a steep flight of stairs, pilgrims arrive at a pitch black passageway to search for salvation. They grope blindly in their stocking feet, seeking the wall-mounted handle Buddhists believe ensures a happy hereafter.

The floor is cold, and the walls are not warm, but visitors cling to them for comfort because the corridor curves and the light is gone. The effect is claustrophobia. The Key to Paradise is found on the right, maybe three feet from the ground, perhaps 10 steps from the exit.

Speedskater Eric Flaim leads the U.S. team into the stadium.
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Not far from this heart of darkness, the Olympic flame was lit Saturday morning in Japan. The 18th Winter Games began with the ritualized ringing of the Temple's 17th Century brass bell, by a man whose life was once spared because of an atom bomb.

The last Olympic Games of the millennium began with an observance of curious contrasts.

Saturday's Opening Ceremony simultaneously celebrated Japan's ancient traditions and its technological wizardry, featuring nearly naked sumo wrestlers performing what appeared to be a variation on the ''Ickey Shuffle'' and a sophisticated satellite hookup that enabled choruses on five continents to synchronize their singing of Beethoven's ''Ode To Joy.''

The overriding theme was that the Key to Paradise - Earth Division - was a world ruled by children.

''The future of our society truly lies in our youth,'' said Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee. ''Let us build together for them a peaceful and better world.

Figure skaters Tara Lipinski and Todd Eldredge march in the ceremonies.
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''Let us strive to provide an education for all in which sport and the Olympic ideal also play an essential role, based on the values of respect, dignity, tolerance and solidarity.''

As usual - and particularly in light of escalating tensions in Iraq - Samaranch's speech was impossibly simplistic, even naive. Samaranch, with a child-like faith, invoked the Olympic Truce as if it might actually influence the foreign policy of long-time antagonists. Yet no matter how much the Olympic movement drifts out of touch with reality, it can always be depended on for striking symbolism.

Motoichi Godo, who rang the bell heard round the world Saturday morning, was 17 years old when ordered to serve a suicide mission for the sake of his country.

On Aug. 5, 1945, the young Japanese sailor was told he was to act as a kairutei, the naval equivalent of a kamikaze. A boat was to be loaded with explosives, and Godo would set out to sink an American warship at the cost of his life.

Midori Ito, former figure skater and Olympic medalist, lights the torch.
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The next day, the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Godo's mission was soon moot.

''If the war lasts a year longer,'' he said. ''I might not be here.''

He is 69 years old now, and has been ringing the temple bell for 27 years. The hourly job is shared by six men, who also act as custodians of the Buddhist shrine, who make sure that a lantern that has been lit for 1,300 years does not burn out. Godo is the boss.

''If I sleep in,'' he said Friday, ''there will be no Olympics.''

Tradition holds that the temple bell's ringing has the power to purify the souls of men and to eliminate their earthly desires. If so, it has surely worked slowly. Still, Motoichi Godo is living proof that destiny can be detoured.

''For more than 50 years, unlike my colleagues from the war, I have been fortunate enough to live in a peaceful world, and I am grateful for that,'' he has been quoted as saying.

Japanese military jets fly over the ceremonies.
(AP photo)
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''During the Olympics, when athletes and friends from all over the world are getting together in one place, I will ring the bell and pray for peace in the world, and for all the athletes here to live a happy life.''

Eric Flaim, a speedskater, carried the American flag into the converted baseball park where the ceremonies were held. The four-time Olympian followed the 440-pound sumo wrestler Musashimaru into the stadium, and led a delegation (including no-shows) of 196 U.S. athletes.

''I didn't march in 1988 because my first event was the day after,'' Flaim said. ''I did it in 1992 and 1994, and marching in is always a thrill. . . . It was cold in Norway, one of the coldest nights that I can remember. But just the thrill of the crowd and the joy of being there as an athlete kind of overwhelms you.''

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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