Moscow — Hundreds of feet high, a sea of white magically broke up and transformed itself into an Olympic symbol. A red star appeared at the top left-hand corner of the scene. Red beams radiated down from the star and yellow rays of light traveled down the beams.
Suddenly it all evened out into an expanse of bright yellow. From it sprang a huge picture of Misha the Olympic bear, complete in every detail, holding red flowers on green stems. As recorded music blasted a farewell to the games, as 100,000 spectators applauded and a worldwide television audience looked on, realistic tears rolled from the big bear's eyes.
It was one of the more astonishing displays of mass precision during both opening and closing ceremonies for the Moscow Olympics -- elaborately orchestrated and throughly rehearsed open-air theater on a scale rarely, if ever , tried in the West.
And it was one more example of the lengths to which the centralized Soviet system can go to create spectacles of color and light on special occasions.
The scenes were formed by 4,500 young men, believed to be Army officers and soldiers, massed in one section of Lenin Stadium seats, 77 rows high from bottom to top, each equipped with colored cloth squares and tunics.
They first made their appearance during the Soviet summer games, the Spartakiad, which were held last summer as a dress rehearsal for the Olympics.
At that time they held up their multicolored squares, and put on and took off their various tunics, to form Soviet emblems and messages of greeting, peace, and friendship. At one point they even formed the picture of an atomic bomb explosion, complete with mushroom cloud, then the slogan, "no to the neutron bomb!"
During Olympic ceremonies, they were less political and even more spectacular.
The 4,500 filed into the open-air arena before most other spectators were allowed in. Studied through my binoculars an hour before the closing ceremonies began, they seemed at first sight to be average citizens -- except that theirs was the only completely filled section, and their red, green, and yellow caps were all clearly brand new.
The clue to their identity as soldiers came before the games when I spotted many soldiers standing outside the Lenin Stadium one day. "They are here for rehearsals," a Soviet official told me when I asked. "You know, for the color displays at the opening ceremony."
After the games, repeated efforts to get more information about the 4,500 soldiers failed, since telephone numbers for the officials concerned did not answer.
Closing ceremonies began with a fanfare (170 men and women in white entered and raised long trumpets to their lips as the fanfare sounded. They did not blow, however: it was all prerecorded, as in many television programs), and the 4,500 got down to work.
As all of them put on bright red tunics, like life jackets, their section of stands, directly beneath the Olympic flame, turned red. A few minutes later, they switched their tunics to pink, then to white. The effect was a dazzling backdrop for television and still pictures of the entire Lenin Stadium scene.
The Olympic symbol came next with the star, the beams, and more colors. At one point, the tableau formed separate bands of blue, green, yellow, orange, red , and purple, by holding up what looked like large imitation flowers made of plastic or cardboard.
Almost every time one glanced back at the tableau, it had formed a different pattern. And when Misha appeared, he was flanked by vertical words, "dobrovo puti," ("pleasant journey"). Tears running from his eyes were formed by designated men switching their colored cloth squares to white in sequence, starting from the eye and continuing downward.
As the stadium filled with gymnasts and athletes, flags flew, march music by Rodion Schedrin blasted from the loudspeakers, "Farewell Moscow' by Alexandra Pakhmutova was played, and the soldiers kept changing colors, squares and tunics.
During opening ceremonies, they even held up wooden stretchers to form a zig-zag path in the air for the Soviet athlete who ran up from the track up to the golden bowl to light the Olympic flame.