Ceremony Puts Women in Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

Amid a chaos of colors and a panoply of fashions, of blues as rich as the ocean and greens as vivid as limes, of hats with goofy ear flaps and lush fur trim, long coats and short jackets and the shiny metallic parkas worn by athletes from the host nation, the biggest impression from Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony was created by an island of pure, snowy white.

Dressed in white coats over high-necked white outfits, eight women entered the Olympic Stadium at a stately pace. Each clutched a piece of the Olympic flag, also white except for the five interlocked, colored rings that symbolize the five continents and their union at the Games.

The women’s diversity was as striking as their accomplishments. Italian actress Sophia Loren, stunning at 71, led the quartet on the right side. Opposite her was Wangari Maathai of Kenya, an environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Behind Loren strode a smiling Isabel Allende of Chile, a distinguished writer and founder of a foundation that supports underprivileged women and children. Across from her walked Manuela di Centa of Italy, who won seven Olympic medals in cross-country skiing and has climbed Mt. Everest.


Third on either side of the flag were Nawal el Moutawakel of Morocco, the 400-meter gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and first African Muslim woman to win an Olympic title, and Maria Mutola of Mozambique, who became the first woman from her country to win a gold medal when she triumphed in the 800 at the 2000 Sydney Games. Holding the far corners were American actress Susan Sarandon, a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, and Somaly Mam of Cambodia, a human rights activist.

On a night when nearly half of the 80 competing nations chose women to carry their national flags and lead their delegations into the stadium, the eight women who bore the Olympic flag accentuated the unusual note of inclusion. The International Olympic Committee has 115 members, 14 of them women.

“We looked for women with fantastic, sort of high-profile careers,” said Valentino Castellani, president of the Turin Organizing Committee. Women also played key roles in the final steps of the Olympic flame’s journey to the caldron atop the stadium, where it will burn until Feb. 26.

Five-time Olympic skiing medalist Alberto Tomba of Italy jogged the torch into the stadium, to thunderous applause. He handed it off to Italy’s gold-medal winning cross-country relay team from the 1994 Games, Silvio Fauner, Marco Albarello, Maurilio de Zolt and Giorgio Vanzetta. They, in turn, gave it to Italian skier Piero Gros, a gold medalist at the 1976 Innsbruck Games.


The last hands to carry the torch were Italian Alpine skier Deborah Compagnoni, winner of three gold medals and one silver medal in 1992 and 1994, and Stefania Belmondo, who won 10 medals -- two gold, three silver and five bronze -- while representing Italy in cross-country skiing.

“We thought of setting a beautiful example,” Castellani said. “It was a moment to emphasize the role of women in the world.”

A colorful moment, at that.