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Winter Games Start With Nod to Sarajevo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years to the week after the Olympic flame was ignited over Sarajevo, and seven days after an attack on a central market there killed 68 people, the opening ceremony of the XVII Olympic Winter Games here Saturday was dedicated to the citizens of that war-ravaged Bosnian city.

Wearing a white peace ribbon on his full-length ski parka, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, president of the International Olympic Committee, asked the crowd of 40,000 at the Lysgardsbakkene ski jumping arena, as well as a worldwide television audience, to stand for a moment of silence in memory of the victims on both sides of the strife in Sarajevo.

“Please stop the fighting, stop the killing,” he said in an impassioned plea. “Drop your guns, please.”

But apart from that somber interlude, the atmosphere in the outdoor arena was festive as organizers in the northernmost city ever to stage the Olympics welcomed a record 1,902 athletes from 66 countries with a celebration of Norwegian culture and winter.

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The weather cooperated. Out of regard for the organizers’ resolve to protect the environment, such as the heavy fines they threatened against contractors if even one fir tree too many was cut down in the construction of Olympic facilities, Samaranch has dubbed these the “Green Games.” But the predominant color Saturday was white.

Snow falling throughout the two-hour ceremony added to a near-record amount covering the ground. There has been so much snow here this winter that it buried the five-foot fences designed to separate spectators from competitors on the cross-country skiing and biathlon courses, forcing organizers to hire trucks to haul it out.

Otherwise, the snow is going nowhere because the temperature is too far below freezing for it to melt. It was so bitterly cold a couple of weeks ago that animal rights activists forced the delay of the transport of 140 reindeer trained for the opening ceremony from the northern part of the country to Lillehammer because of frigid conditions inside the trailer trucks.

Although the high Saturday was 14 degrees, it seemed colder because of the wind blowing off nearby Lake Mjosa. But the reindeer performed admirably. So did the hostess and host, actress Liv Ullmann and explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who presided over a program that included acrobats, sky divers, folk fiddlers, hundreds of dancing and singing children in traditional Norwegian costumes and, of course, mischievous trolls.

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The show’s star, however, was ski jumper Stein Gruben, who sailed off the big hill with the official torch in his right hand. Once safe on the ground--which was not a given considering that the original fly-by torchbearer withdrew after plowing headfirst into a snowbank in Thursday night’s rehearsal and suffering a concussion--Gruben handed off the torch to a partially blind cross-country skier, Cathrine Nottingnes, who will compete in the Paralympics here next month.

She, in turn, passed it to the final torchbearer, Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon, who lit the Olympic flame that will burn for the 16 days of the Games. The prince, 20, is a sailor who hopes to become an Olympian, as were his father, King Harald, and grandfather, the late King Olav.

King Harald, who competed in three Summer Olympics in sailing, officially opened the second Winter Games to be held in Norway. The first were 110 miles south of here, in the capital city of Oslo, in 1952.

With a population of 23,000, Lillehammer is the second-smallest city ever to serve as host to an Olympics, after the 1932 and ’80 winter site of Lake Placid, N.Y., and claims to be the world’s only city with a skier in its coat of arms.

Known as the “cradle of skiing,” Norway is proud of its winter sports tradition. It finished at the top of the medal standings in five of the first six Winter Olympics, from 1924 through ’52, and, although the Norwegians could not compete with the state-supported sports systems of the former Soviet Union and East Germany, they expect to reclaim their glory over the fortnight, perhaps surpassing the nine gold medals they won in the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

Reflecting the geopolitical turmoil of recent years, 11 former Soviet republics and three former Yugoslav republics, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, are competing here independently.

Also, South Africa, a pariah in international sports during the decades of apartheid, has returned to the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1960. Israel is represented for the first time, by a Russian emigre figure skater.

The largest delegation here belongs to the United States, whose 157 athletes also have high hopes. With such proven winners as speedskaters Bonnie Blair and Cathy Turner, figure skater Brian Boitano and freestyle skier Donna Weinbrecht returning, U.S. Olympic Committee officials are predicting 14 medals, which would be the most ever for the United States in the Winter Games.

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Wearing long blue down coats and gray cowboy hats, the Americans were led into the opening ceremony Saturday by flag bearer Cammy Myler, a luge competitor whose brother watched on television from a hospital bed in Lake Placid, where he is undergoing cancer treatment.

* RELATED STORIES, PHOTOS: C1, C10-13


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