Task for Olympians: How not to be 'ugly Americans'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even before she arrives in Athens, Olympian Lauren McFall has made some curious amendments to her to-do list. Don't speak too loudly, for one. Don't go out with large groups of friends, for another. And, despite all her patriotic tendencies, avoid wearing anything that says "USA."

The synchronized swimmer has already gotten a taste of what it is like to be so obviously American, so far from home. Like the time someone spray-painted epithets on the team's flag, or the time they were booed - unheard of in a sport where gold and silver can be separated by a smile.

By the beginning of opening ceremonies next Friday, each American athlete will probably have heard the same thing in memos and seminars: Play hard, lie low.

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It is, on one hand, a common-sense tip amid the threat of terror. But it's also a recognition that at these Games, and in these times, the stereotypical image of the "ugly American" is unacceptable.

This year in particular, the world will be watching every punch and pole vault with heightened sensitivity. If any American steps too far out of line, the team runs the risk of being branded the new Soviet bloc, the country everyone loves to root against - perceived of as too good, too cocky, and a global bully.

"The whole idea of Americans beating up on other countries is going to be very interesting in the context of today's political situation," says John Bevilaqua of Seqiuam Sports, a marketing company.

What American athletes must avoid, he and others say, is a repeat of what happened four years ago in Sydney. After winning the 4x100 relay, the members of the US team pranced around the stadium, flexing their muscles and making poses with the American flag in what one foreign journalist called "one of the most cringe-making exhibitions that the Olympics has seen."

Back then, the episode was pure Olympic soap opera - one of the talking points in a sporting fortnight that always encompasses the diapason of human emotion. But this year, with Washington setting a strong and controversial path in international affairs, it might take much less to bring the world's political vexation with the United States into Athens's athletic venues.

"Even the slightest transgression will be seen as the 'typical American,' " says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian. "It's up to the athletes."

The United States Olympic Committee is doing its best to help the athletes realize that. For months, athletes have been speaking about the USOC's demands that they be on their best behavior in Athens. Now, two former Olympians, Bob Beamon and Janet Evans, are showing a video with the dos and don'ts of Olympic etiquette - including the antics of Sydney's 4x100 relay team. Synchronized swimmer McFall says her team has even toned down its uniforms: They're still red, white, and blue, just not so brazenly American.

Tom Hoff understands the concerns - to a point. The way the volleyball player sees it, there's no place for taunting or boorishness at the Games. He doesn't want to do anything that he wouldn't want his daughter to see. But when it comes to waving an American flag, he's willing to risk a little alienation.

"People don't understand all the work we put in," he says. "They're not saying, 'Look at me.' They're just so proud."

Besides, nationalism is nothing new at the Olympics. The ancient Games were virtually predicated on them. There is evidence that two city-states once fought a battle at Olympia during the Games while spectators watched. And while the modern Olympics were founded as a haven from global politics, nationalism has often played a role - from the Nazi Games of 1936 to the US and Soviet boycotts of 1980 and '84.

"Nationalism always plays a part in the modern Games just as it did in the ancient Games," says David Romano, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

To expect that to be completely absent from Athens - even in the best-case scenario - is perhaps unrealistic. And volleyballer Hoff draws a distinction between national pride and anti-Americanism.

As an athlete who has played around the world, in front of crowds that make the tumultuous atmosphere of Duke University's Cameron Indoor Stadium look like a Tupperware party, he knows what to expect. He remembers when a crowd in Argentina bombarded the Americans with paper airplanes during a crucial point. "I love that they have passion for the game," he says. "I've never felt unsafe."

The US basketball team might receive a similar reception when it plays Greece during the first week of the Games. "I hope someone sits down with the basketball team and has a conversation with them and says, 'This isn't about you. This is about the home team,' " says Mr. Wallechinsky, the historian.

Team coach Larry Brown may not have put it in those precise words, but he recognizes the need for his millionaires to represent more than themselves. "We have a responsibility to act like gentlemen," he said on a conference call. "We have a great opportunity to help people understand that this country is pretty neat."

With that attitude, Americans could find themselves well loved in Athens - even in the midst of international uncertainty. "They love Lance Armstrong here," says Wallechinsky, speaking from his home in France. "If American athletes behave themselves, there won't be a problem."

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