Olympic Games Begin With Armenia in Front

SYDNEY(Reuters)–The eyes of the world looked south on Friday to the biggest Olympic Games in history that opened with a rousing “G’Day” in a celebration which sought to heal the rift between black and white Australia.

Marching at the front during the athletes parade was the 28-member team representing Armenia. The Armenian tri-color was carried by 23-year-old Haikaz Galstyan–Greco-Roman wrestler–who said he was honored.

An eight-member Armenian dance troupe also took part in the opening ceremonies–which focused on the different cultures represented at the Olympic Games.

Protests by Aborigines against the injustices of 200 years of European settlement fizzled out long before the flame kindled in Greece was held aloft by Australia’s greatest Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman.

The identity of the final torch-bearer was kept secret until the very end of the more than four-hour-long extravaganza of sound and light.

Freeman was the last of six Australian Olympic heroines to carry the torch in the stadium at the end of its journey across this vast land. The choices were a tribute to the 100th anniversary of women’s participation in the modern Olympics.

Police heaved a sigh of relief as the ceremony passed off peacefully. Not only did the Aboriginal protests fail to disrupt Sydney’s day in the world spotlight but opponents of economic globalization made no attempt to repeat their violent protests seen earlier in the week at a World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne.

Not even the cloudy spring day could dampen the party mood with thousands watching the glittery ceremony outside the packed 110,000 capacity stadium on a giant screen near Sydney’s landmark Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

The Games–sport’s greatest showcase–have brought 11,000 athletes from 199 nations to Sydney–which spent seven years and $1.4 billion preparing for them.

Spurred by the Olympic spirit of reconciliation–Cold War foes North and South Korea marched under the same flag — a white banner with the blue outline of the Korean Peninsula–after half a century of enmity and division.

East Timor–one of the 20th century’s casualties of ethnic conflict–was given a rapturous welcome as its tiny team of just four athletes stepped into an international arena for the first time since last year’s vote to break free of Indonesian rule.

They danced for joy and punched the air–blowing kisses to the appreciative crowd.

The roar was deafening when the entire Australian team poured into the stadium and in a gentle note of self-mockery threw stuffed toy kangaroos into the crowd to cries of “Aussie–Aussie–Aussie!”

“G’Day Sydney. G’Day Australia. Yes–the Olympic Games are back Down Under,” Olympic chief Juan Antonio Samaranch told the crowd.

He called Australia a “great country” and paid tribute to its Aborigines.

Freeman–27–was visibly moved by the honor which was greeted as a gesture of reconciliation in a nation seeking to come to terms with its past.

It showed how far the country has come. Just six years ago Freeman was rebuked by Commonwealth Games boss Arthur Tunstall for carrying an Aboriginal flag on a victory lap in Canada.

Aboriginal activists accuse the government of using the Olympics to whitewash a history of injustice since white settlers arrived in 1788–evicting or massacring native inhabitants. Aborigines make up 2.1 percent–or around 400,000–of Australia’s 19 million population.

The schedule for the tennis competitions was also posted Friday–according to which–Armenia’s Sargis Sargissian will face off with Denmark’s Christian Pelsi in a match scheduled for Tuesday.

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