Five-ring Circus

The 2004 Olympics

Greeks bearing glowsticks at the opening ceremony.

8:00 p.m.: Images of the Acropolis dissolve into slo-mo shots of buff bodies as a Patrick Stewart sound-alike reads from grandly worded text that, surprisingly, contains several topical references to war: “While a thousand wars have flamed and burned, as our world has been shattered and remade, a call to a starting line yet remains. … Tonight, 202 nations assemble in a tenuous peace …”

8:07 p.m.: Katie Couric welcomes us to the land “where drama was born, long before Broadway, nearly 3,000 years ago.” Later, co-host Bob Costas will engage in some lit crit of his own: “Oedipus, as you know, Katie, was the tragic king who killed his father and married his mother—a sequence of events that seldom turns out well.”

8:24 p.m.: The stadium floor is covered in water. A 9-year-old kid, apparently the fruit of a search for the Hellenic Haley Joel Osment, floats by in what looks like a folded paper boat, waving a teeny Greek flag. He’s cute, but the people in the stands must be thinking that this looks pretty damn dinky.

8:31 p.m.: The cheesy civic spectacle designed by Greek artist Dimitri Papaioannou begins. A red centaur throws a javelin of light—a glowstick, really—at a huge Cycladic head, one of those early Greek sculptures that looks a little like a stylized space alien. The head breaks open into realistically carved thighs and torsos that descend to the ground on wires—bits of classical Greek sculpture that, Katie Couric instructs us, represent “the dawn of individuality.” This was one of the few moments that actually gave me one of those 2001: A Space Odyssey-style frissons. But I’ve always been a sucker for humanist meta-narratives of history.

8:36 p.m.: Oh, no! It’s Cube Man! That’s what Bob Costas is calling the mime-y guy in a loincloth, perched precariously atop the single white cube that has somehow arisen from a hole in the middle of the stadium floor. Cube Man “symbolizes man’s evolution into a logical being in search of knowledge,” says Costas. If I were evolving into a logical being, one of the first things I’d do would be to decide to get down from that 50-foot-high cube.

8:40 p.m.: The sequence that follows, in which floats bearing tableaux vivants from different periods of Greek history roll majestically around the periphery of the stadium, is impeccably researched, staggeringly gorgeous, and very, very long.

9:08 p.m.: The Parade of Nations has begun! Where are the Grenadines, anyway? I’m loving a country whose official Olympic dress uniform is a yellow Hawaiian-style shirt with palm trees on it. Party country!

9:40 p.m.: Commercial break: In an extended visual metaphor, a Samsung cell phone becomes an athlete, sailing into a swan dive or slowly opening like the legs of a gymnast. This ad was clearly influenced by Leni Riefenstahl, which is just frightening. The multitalented Nazi flip phone: Buy it!

10:10 p.m.: For the men, the best-dressed delegation has to be Bermuda: narrow red schoolboy shorts with black jackets, ties, and knee socks, like Angus Young from AC/DC. The Nigerian women, in starched, pleated white caftans and bright green headwraps, look like a million bucks as well. But the most chic nation is a surprise: Russia. Men and women alike sport cream-colored, flapper-style suits and rakishly tilted berets. They look like extras from The Great Gatsby. The women even have matching over-the-shoulder bags in snappy two-tone leather. What could they be carrying in there?

10:19 p.m.: Amidst the deadening pageantry, there are tiny flashes of geopolitics: This year’s games have the first delegations from Iraq and Afghanistan to include women and the first-ever appearance of East Timor as an independent nation. Due to some strong-arming from mainland China, Taiwan has to bill itself as “Chinese Taipei.” As the Bataan Death March of nations enters its second hour, you grasp at what bits of knowledge you can.

10:25 p.m.: I wish I had a screen capture of this image: a backlit Parthenon, nestled up against an NBC logo and a graphic of the Golden Arches with the legend, “I’m lovin’ it.”

11:06 p.m.: The nations have gathered. I’m numbly vegging out on the riot of colors in the oval center of the stadium, when Costas’ fatuous patter suddenly resolves into a single galvanizing syllable: “Björk.” The diminutive Icelandic singer appears, swathed in a mass of bunchy bluish fabric. Such a clotheshorse, that crazy Björk—remember the swan dress at the 2001 Oscars? But, wait—as she launches into one of those shapeless Europop ballads that could conceivably go on forever, the cloth begins to unfurl. A train of 30,000 square feet of parachute silk spreads out, covering the gathered athletes like an immense blue pool. I’m thrilled, but horrified: Can you imagine 11,000 people looking up your dress?

11:08 p.m.: 11,000 people are still looking up Björk’s dress.

11:36 p.m.: I knew at some point they were going to get all Cirque de Soleil on our ass. The ceremony draws to a close with a symbolic torch relay: Dancers dressed as athletes, each bearing a noble glowstick, “fly” on wires 50 feet above the stadium toward the Olympic torch, which lies propped against the stadium floor like a giant joint in an ashtray.

11:43 p.m.: Guy finally lights torch, which is then lifted up on an immense pylon to the cheers of thousands. Looming above the dark stadium, the orange tower of flame looks sort of like the evil eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. I totally understand the power of cults right now—between the fatigue, the nationalist anthems, and the glowing phallus of fire, I am ready to do anything Bob Costas asks of me.

11:57 p.m.: The NBC coverage ends with Simon and Garfunkel singing, “I am a citizen of the planet” over a montage of images from the ceremony we’ve just seen. Remember when a boy floated across the water in a folded paper boat, when Cube Man cavorted logically on his cube, and the finest athletes alive got a gander at Björk’s undies? It all seems like such a long, long time ago.