Olympic balancing act over a symbolic flag
The Super Bowl and Emmy productions gushed patriotism after the events of Sept. 11. But today, the United States team discovered how complicated even the smallest act of patriotism can be at the Olympics, the consummate international sports event.
The United States Olympic Committee wanted its athletes in the opening ceremony on Friday to carry a tattered flag that has become a traveling symbol of the terrorist attacks. The International Olympic Committee, which oversees the Games, rejected that request, saying it would seem too political.
United States and international officials compromised, agreeing that the flag from the World Trade Center, signed by relatives of the victims of the attacks, will fly in the place reserved for the host country’s flag on the night of the ceremony. But the daylong debate marked the fine line the Olympic organizers are treading as they try to honor the host nation’s still-fresh pain over the terrorist attacks but prevent any appearance of political favoritism or demonstrations of outright jingoism.
The International Olympic Committee fiercely protects the global spirit of its events, billing the Games as a chance for countries at different political poles to come together on the same playing field. It calls for a cease-fire during each Games, a request denied by the Bush administration this year. Committee members envision the opening ceremony in particular as a dignified parade, free from commercialism and politics.
The I.O.C. reasoned that if Americans were allowed to carry the trade center flag, athletes from other countries might start asking to carry symbols of their own particular national tragedies in this or future Olympics.
The creative minds behind the ceremony, too, are sensitive about how their production will be perceived by a worldwide audience. The executive producer, Don Mischer, remembers being uplifted and mesmerized by the extravaganza at the start of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Years later, he met one I.O.C. official who referred to the Los Angeles Games as ”second only to Hitler’s Games in ’36” for jingoism.
”Everyone sees things differently,” Mischer said Monday at a rehearsal for the opening ceremony. ”We have to be concerned about not focusing too much on America. We have to emphasize the rest of the world. The world expects an international event.”
Other Olympics in this country have been criticized for American boosterism. The political climate stoked that then as now. During the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the 1984 Summer Games, the cold war provided a backdrop.
Announcers for ABC Sports were accused of going overboard, as when Jim McKay proclaimed, ”We are a great people,” at the close of the Lake Placid Games, taking in the afterglow of the American hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union in a game labeled the Miracle on Ice.
The rowdy chants of ”U.S.A.!” rang out again as the United States dominated the 1984 Games, which were boycotted by many Eastern bloc countries in response to the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. Upset over the ubiquitous overtones of red, white and blue in 1984, the I.O.C. president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, protested ABC’s coverage of the Olympics.
While the cold war is over, the war on terrorism has put the United States in a patriotic mood once again. Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah reacted to the Sept. 11 attacks by referring to the Olympics as a chance to ”host an event where the world can come together and heal.”
I.O.C. officials recognize that, too.
”The world at large, as in America, felt that holding the Games in Salt Lake City — and successful Games — is a fundamental answer to violence and terrorism,” said François Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee. ”The tragedy has created a special sense, a feeling all over the world. We also feel it.”
The war and its accompanying emotions lend themselves to such introspection. It is a difficult balance to strike, but instead of spotlighting an American tragedy, the Olympic organizers are mindful against wrapping the opening ceremony in American colors when there will be almost 3,000 athletes from all nations and various political backgrounds inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday.
There is talk of having the 1980 men’s Olympic hockey team light the cauldron.
In a nod to balance, perhaps, there is also talk of as assist from a Russian member of the team the United States so memorably defeated in the semifinals that year.
The theme of the opening ceremony will be ”Light the Fire Within.” The slogan is everywhere, from the stadium facade to the street banners.
”We wanted to celebrate the power to inspire,” said Scott Givens, creative director for the opening ceremony. ”That message is the Olympic story. At the core, the Olympics inspires us and allows us to believe.”
Close to 3,500 cast members will convey this theme over the two-hour production. Ninety-eight percent of the cast is from Utah, but the opening ceremony will not only include local entertainment like that from from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but will also feature international recording artists like Sting.
The audience will also participate, using flashlights to illuminate the backdrop for a show that organizers say will be about unity. Some opening ceremonies in past Olympics have been budget-busting, but Salt Lake officials say a premium has been put on taste, not garishness.
Mike Moran, chief spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee, said the athletes themselves thought of having four teammates stretch the trade center flag wide at the rear of the marching delegation. The flag, which has traveled to Kandahar and to the World Series, was most recently displayed at the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
”They felt the U.S. team should say something,” Moran said. Individual athletes, he said, may be planning their own tributes. Tristan Gale, who competes in skeleton, dyed her ringlets red, white and blue.
To those behind the scenes of the opening ceremony, however, there is no need to turn the event into melodrama.
”There are few small things to address Sept. 11, but first and foremost this is a worldwide event,” Mischer said. ”The main show has not changed, but I think the attitudes of those who will see it have changed. I think people will naturally feel more emotional about what they see in the opening ceremony.
”I think now something as simple as raising a flag or seeing the athletes come into the stadium together will have more meaning than ever before.” Autor: Kate Zernike and Selena Roberts