The torch that's been inching its way across America for as long as anyone can remember finally reaches the stadium in Atlanta tonight, igniting three weeks of Olympic drama, fun and, well, product endorsement.

Tonight's opening ceremony is a marathon in itself. Produced by Don Mischer, a Super Bowl halftime veteran, it features 5,500 performers. The show starts around 8:00 p.m. (ET) with the "Call to Nations," while John Williams conducts his music composed for the occasion. Then it's on to a "Welcome to the World" spectacle, which Mischer says will include marching bands, banjo players and hip-hop dancers. Pop singer Celine Dion, opera diva Jessye Norman and soul classic Gladys Knight will sing, and 11,000 athletes and coaches will troop through the field during the "Parade of Nations." At 12:01 a.m., a runner (whose identity is still a secret) carries the torch up to the big cauldron and--kaboom.

NBC says it believes that 200 million Americans will watch at least part of the 17-day broadcast. "It will be huge," agrees Jessica Reif, a media analyst for Merrill Lynch. "Most of the movie studios aren't releasing major films during the Olympics; the cable networks are seeing advertising dry up. The assumption is a large amount of the viewing audience will be watching NBC." The network will seize the opportunity to mercilessly promote its fall lineup.

Fifty advertisers paid an average of $500,000 per 30-second spot in prime time to join you in your living room. A few biggies, such as McDonald's and Coca Cola, paid millions more to exclude their rivals from the air as well. To keep viewers interested, Coke will air 100 different ads, and Reebok is offering a three-commercial miniseries starring the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith in a comedy quest to get football named an Olympic sport.

But the Olympics are ultimately about human beings, not corporations. Some of the probable dramatic highlights: the women's 800-meter freestyle swimming final on July 25 with 16-year-old American Brooke Bennett against Australia's Hayley Lewis...the women's individual gymnastics final hopefully with Dominique Moceanu, the tiny, 14-year-old American star who has been battling an injury...the men's 200-meter final August 1, pitting our Michael Johnson against arch-rival Frankie Fredericks of Namibia.

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