ATLANTA -- In its own inimitable fashion, Atlanta and America welcomed the world to the Centennial Olympic Games with the Opening Ceremonies Friday night and into Saturday morning at Olympic Stadium. It was a boisterous combination of Las Vegas glitz, college football halftime show, backyard Southern hoedown and impromptu street-corner hip-hip.
And when the extravagant but emotional four-hour long production was capped by Muhammed Ali lighting the Olympic flame, the 26th Olympiad was on for the 17 days that Atlanta and the region have anticipated for six years.
"I can't believe it . . . I can't believe it's real," said Donna Wylie, a visitor from Maryland who said she was awe-struck by the entertainment during the first part of the show, produced by Don Mischer, who has also staged presidential inaugurations, the Tony Awards and Michael Jackson's 1993 Super Bowl halftime show.
"It's excellent . . . very creative," added 12-year-old Jake Thompson of London, who was watching the show with his twin brother Lou and another friend, Henry St. George. "It's all been very impressive."
Ali, who won a gold medal as Cassius Clay in boxing at Rome in 1960, lit the cauldron at the top of Olympic Stadium and surprised the crowd of more than 85,000 people. They cheered wildly as Atlanta native Evander Holyfield brought the flame onto the field and handed it to swimmer Janet Evans, who took it up a ramp to Ali.
And an estimated television audience of 3.5 billion - the largest to watch a single event in history, if projections held true - watched the huge fire add an orange glow to the sultry Georgia night.
The Parade of Nations took more than 90 minutes to complete, starting with Greece as the traditional first nation, and ending with the United States, behind flag-bearer Bruce Baumgartner. There were 195 nations in between, ranging from the one representing Lebanon - weightlifter Alaywan Malih - to the 680 from the U.S.
As expected, the American athletes received the loudest roar of the evening from the predominantly home crowd. But every country - even Iraq - received at least polite applause.
The athletes entered in casual fashion, waving hats to the crowd, twirling umbrellas and, in the case of Ethiopia, circling with each other to do a joyous dance on the field.
The U.S. team used more than half the track in its lap, with the women wearing bright red sport coats and the men navy blue. All wore white panama hats and most seemed overjoyed by the occasion, bouncing up and down, waving and smiling as "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and "The Washington Post March" blared from loudspeakers.
The night began in dramatic fashion, complete with a one-minute countdown and a brief but flashy fireworks show from the west end zone, which mingled with a reddish, Georgia sunset.
The "Call to Athletes" began with performers in yellow, blue, black, red and green, space-suit type outfits, rising from one side of the stadium and other performers carrying billowing pieces of cloth onto the field, with hundreds of dancers accompanied by drums and flashing lights to represent the Spirits of the Five Olympic Rings.
They were followed by schoolchildren in white outfits, representing the doves of peace, keeping crowd in awe at a performance that was both ancient and futuristic.
Famed composer John Williams, the conductor of the Boston Pops, then led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the playing of his 1996 Olympic theme song, "Summon the Heroes."
Following that opening, President Bill Clinton - tripping slightly on the tarp covering the field - entered the stadium and led the crowd in observing the "Star-Spangled Banner," played by the ASO, the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets and the Atlanta Olympic band, and sung by the Centennial Honor Choir, composed of the glee clubs of Spellman and Morehouse Colleges and the ASO Chorus.
As the last strains of the National Anthem thundered throughout the stadium, more fireworks merged with the last fingers of daylight in the west and a squadron of jets boomed overhead.
Atlanta's "Welcome to the World" featured children from the city, ranging from high school cheerleaders, step-dancers, trick jump-ropers and the nationally famous band from Southwest DeKalb High School. There was also a light show from floodlights on the back of the now-controversial pickup trucks, but in the spirit of the night, the manufacturer covered up the Chevrolet logos.
And of course, the night couldn't have passed without a rendition of Ray Charles' "Georgia," which was sung by Gladys Knight. She was followed in song later in the night by Canadian pop diva Celine Dion and Augusta, Ga., native opera singer Jessye Norman, who closed the night with the singing of "Faster, Higher, Stronger."
Following the Parade of Nations, there was a moving tribute to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with the playing of his "I Have A Dream" speech, and remarks by Billy Payne, the president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, and Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee. President Clinton then formally opened the games and the Olympic flag was brought into the stadium by eight former Olympians with Georgia ties - Edwin Moses, Steve Lundquist, Katrina McClain, Geoffrey Gaberino, Mary Meagher Plant, Ralph Boston, Dave Maggard and Benita Fitzgerald Mosely.
The evening finally concluded when Teresa Edwards, a member of the U.S. women's basketball team and a native of Cairo, Ga. - who was also celebrating her 32nd birthday - administered the Olympic oath to the athletes, coaches and officials.