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Our Olympics, our (now-patriotic) American selves

By Jim KlobucharSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2002


The torn and revered American flag that flew through the agony of the World Trade Center attack will fly beside the Olympic flag tomorrow night.

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Twelve of its stars are missing.

Millions who will watch the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games on television will struggle with their emotions, remembering the horror and the bravery.

Not many of them will summon another Olympic image of more than 30 years ago, when America was not the same arm-in-arm America that it is today. The scene then was jolting and raw, an American athlete raising his fist in unspeaking scorn over the inequalities in his country. Tomorrow's will be chest-swelling, thundering affirmation of who we are - today.

NBC cameras will feast on this latest and surmounting declaration of American solidarity in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It may be overdone. It usually is.

There's not likely to be any voluble complaint among American viewers. Enlisting blockbuster athletic events as a platform for super patriotism has plenty of precedent: the World Series, the Super Bowl and the endless college bowl games.

But none of them can equal the Olympics for end-to-end theater and soap opera enmities. None of them approach the Olympics in those memorable moments of human grandeur and sacrifice. Nothing else gives you this same nations-in-collision tableau and nothing, of course, comes close to that TV audience of 3 billion people.

And into this rich mosaic of big bucks, spectacle, and clashing human wills march the American athletes who must and will feel the massed vibrations of their fellow citizens joining in their mission from ocean to ocean.

A beautiful feeling, that, both the America athletes and their competitors acknowledge.

But those two scenes three decades apart, the flag-raising and massive adulation in Salt Lake and the clenched fist in Mexico City, tell much about the Olympics as a shifting and sometimes tortuous mirror of humanity's needs and frights and hunger for fulfillment. They change, sometimes 180 degrees, and so do the Olympics' reaction to them.

Do you remember Tommie Smith? He stood on the winner's podium in Mexico City, an extraordinary athlete, the winner of the 200 meter sprint in record time. With the national anthem sounding through the stadium, he raised his gloved right fist and lowered his head. Beside him, John Carlos, the bronze winner, also made a fist. The America of 1968 was violently divided, ripped apart by the war in Vietnam and racial strife, a social confrontation set against an undeclared war of the generations - the rebellion of protesting youth on the streets and campuses.

THAT was not so long ago. Few in this country want to remember Tommie Smith became a respected track coach. His gesture in 1968 symbolized the black power movement. Not long ago he expressed regret that people read his action as an abuse of the flag. He and John Carlos, he said, were human and wanted to be recognized as such and were acknowledging the flag, not insulting it.

Among the American athletes at Salt Lake, the free swingers and mainstreamers alike, protest is out and pride is back in. To their credit, most of the Americans have resisted the temptation to strike heroic poses about the effects of Sept. 11 on their motivation.