ATLANTA, July 19 -- Atlanta welcomed the world's athletes with a whoop and a wave early Saturday morning, opening the XXVIth Olympic Games with a festival of music and dancing that turned the quadrennial gathering of nations into the world's biggest 100th birthday party. Ranging from Southern belles to chrome-plated pickup trucks, the opening ceremonies presented a program rich in a wide range of traditions, all topped with a healthy dose of Southern hospitality. President Clinton and International Olympic Committee chief Juan Antonio Samaranch presided over the five-hour extravaganza, which also paid homage to the roots of the Games with a brief tribute to the Greek ideals that gave the Olympics their birth. Shortly after midnight Clinton officially opened the games with the briefest of statements. 'I declare open the games of Atlanta, celebrating the 26th Olympiad of the modern era,' he said. Traditionally 100 doves are then released, but animal rights activists persuaded the centennial Olympics to instead have 100 runners fly 100 dove-shaped kites, and then the Olympic flame was relayed through the stadium. President With the sky bathed in a gentle hue of pink and the Olympic Stadium floor in blue, the program began with the call of the Spirits of the Olympic Rings, rising above the stadium in a swath of color. Their call was answered by the various 'tribes' of the world, clothed in one of the five colors of the Olympic rings, made their way through the audience sections with huge colored drapes.
The tribes mingled to form the five interlocking Olympic rings, and white-costumed children poured out of the tunnels to form the number '100' on the field. 'Summon the Heroes,' the Centennial Games theme, played as children reassembled to form a dove of peace, and the five tribes united into a single family. Trumpets heralded the entrance of Clinton, who was greeted on the field by Samaranch and Atlanta organizing committee chief Billy Payne. Fireworks and a flyover by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds punctuated the 'Star-Spangled Banner,' after which Atlanta began its 'welcome to the world.' A combination of football half-time show and house party, more than 1,200 youngsters charged onto the field in a vibrant exhibition of gymnastics, dancing and music. To the staging of 30 chrome-plated pickups bathing the stadium floor in light, cheerleaders led the crowd in spelling 'Atlanta' and a high- school marching band high-stepped its way across the stadium floor. They soon gave way to a medley of dance steps, ranging from the traditional 'clogging' of the 17th century to the high-energy 'hip- hop' style popular among today's youth. The welcome ended as the crowd of some 85,000 began a 'wave' of brightly colored scarves, as the performers spelled out 'HOW Y'ALL DOIN'' The field was cleared for the entrance of singer Gladys Knight, coming up through a trap door in the center of the field to perform the blues classic 'Georgia on My Mind.' That was followed by 'Summertime,' a four-movement symphony evoking the grace and beauty of a lazy summer evening, interrupted by a sudden storm, as elaborately costumed 'butterflies' and huge puppets of Antebellum characters glided across the stage. The program then broke for its tribute to ancient Greece. A processional of temple-builders and goddesses raised a Temple of Zeus, while athletes struck giant silhouettes in the classic poses of competition. A voice representing the Baron Pierre de Coubertin was heard, calling for the creation of a modern Games. The five spirits reappeared, and runners representing every host city from Athens 1896 to Atlanta took to the track. Finally, it was time for the athletes to appear, with Greece making its traditional appearance first in line, symbolic of the first host city. The teams then marched through in alphabetical order, gathering in the center of the field in an overflowing sea of humanity. More than 11,000 people walked through the gates until the United States made the traditional final entrance as host nation, welcomed by thunderous cheers.