Our Olympics, our (now-patriotic) American selves

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.

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.

Bode Miller is the reckless and powerful American Alpine skier who may win a gold this month. He has been touring Europe most of the winter, winning four World Cups. As an American, he said this week, he shared the devastation of the terror attacks in September. But he was proud to be an American skier in Nagano four years ago, he said, and he will be just as proud competing in his own country. But no Olympic medal, he said, could bring back the life lost on Sept. 11.

Amy Peterson, a five-time Olympic skier, looks at it a little differently. "There's a little more pressure on us to produce," she said, "but mostly I think we're in a win-win situation. Every person we walk by on the street is supporting us. To compete in the United States of America is probably the biggest privilege I'll have in any of my Olympic experiences. Every country that I've been to waves their flag high and I don't think we'll be any different. All Sept. 11 did is to make it mean that much more to each and every person who waves the flag."

The ancient dreams that the Olympics might be an agent for peace are still treasured, but not very real.

There have been murders in the Olympics, boycotts, fraud as the money in it escalates, routine doping, and political manipulation. The American athletes look like attractive men and women today, and they probably are, but just four years ago in Nagano, the American hockey team tore a hotel room apart, which was more than it was able to accomplish against its opponents on the ice.

The Olympics are the world's wishful but muddling attempts to find joy and reconciliation by assembling its great athletes in friendly rivalry. That doesn't always happen, but sometimes the atmospherics matter as much as the performance.

The Salt Lake games are being characterized by psychologists and the jock mavens as the perfect therapy for a country shocked and mortified just a few months ago by its discovery of vulnerability. It probably is, to the relief of Salt Lake City, whose promoters nearly killed it two years ago with a strategy of bribery that has now been carefully forgiven. But when you look at the Olympics in the larger picture over the decades you have to be struck by the sheer melodrama and burlesque that flavors much of it.

If you see only the athletes and the show here in Salt Lake, for example, you'll miss one of the juicier sideshows. This is the place, Brigham Young said, and the Mormons settled here. The Mormons essentially run Utah. They brought to the mountains and the desert mixed gifts of piety, prosperity, a becoming prudery, and polygamy.

Some of these gifts have become obsolete, and the Mormon leadership looks on the Olympics with a kind of smiling ambivalence. It's nice to have a million visitors in Utah and the eyes of the world on the Mormon Tabernacle. But what about those plans by Olympic organizers to make condoms freely available? Whoa! It's happened at other Games, in the interest of health, but jarred here. Racing into a new millennium is never easy, especially in Utah.

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