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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2002

Committee is golden in allowing symbol of nation's resilience

SALT LAKE CITY - At the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies tomorrow night, there will be a tribute to the victims and the heroes of the Sept. 11 tragedy. The torn American flag from Ground Zero will be carried into Rice-Eccles Stadium by American athletes and an honor guard of police officers and firefighters.

Buried in a sea of red, white, and blue, the jingoism will be thicker than the fog that has descended over Salt Lake City and dropped temperatures well below freezing. The symbolic display of patriotism suddenly has upstaged an international athletic event that is supposed to treat the entire world equally.

But you know what?

Someone explain to me the difference between jingoism and doing what's right. There is no better way for Americans to move on with their lives than to remember and to honor, in front of the entire world, those from the still-recent past.

“I think we are convinced that this is the absolute most dignified and best way for the Olympic movement at large, worldwide, to honor the victims and the heroes,” International Olympic Committee director-general Francois Carrard said yesterday during a news conference.

There's mounting evidence that the IOC bowed to public pressure. That the committee, armed with a quick lesson in humility, performed a dramatic about-face. The turnaround was quick and timely.

In the final analysis, the committee didn't want to appear to be insensitive to what remains an emotional subject for most Americans.

Mr. Carrard said the group is comfortable with the decision to bring the Ground Zero flag into the opening ceremonies.

Clearly, humility has its benefits.

At first the committee was afraid of appearing too pro-American, too political, suggesting that the flag fly in the place reserved for the host country's flag on the night of the ceremony. That opinion ran counter to the desire of the United States Olympic Committee to have athletes carry the World Trade Center flag into the opening ceremonies.

The debate raged on this week and finally subsided Tuesday only because, according to Salt Lake Olympic Committee president and CEO Mitt Romney, “the cat is out of the bag.”

“It was the USOC's idea to have the athletes carry it; we were thinking about using the flag in a pre-Games ceremony that the IOC wasn't informed of,” Mr. Romney said. “All of these conversations were going on, and we would not have normally had these discussions.

“It was reported [in the media] that there were conflicts and challenges, and we recognized we needed to get together to reach our conclusions. But we thought it was very important to make it very clear that we were on the same page [with the IOC] and reached a solution which most generously honored the flag and the heroes and victims of this tragedy.”

Sure, I can see how people from other countries will view the Opening Ceremonies as being slanted too much toward Americans.

Olympic journalists from other nations have written extensively about how American spectators focus on their own athletes and ignore athletes from other countries. And how American television shows U.S. athletes almost exclusively during the Olympics.

Still, five months removed from the tragedy, the symbolic gesture of raising the World Trade Center flag is a way of unifying not only this country but the world, Mr. Romney believes.

“Americans are going to gather at the Opening Ceremony not to just cheer the American athletes,” he said. “When you come to this state and this country, you will find a greater response of appreciation to the people of the world than perhaps ever before in our history. We feel very connected with the world and the athletes of the world. I believe every country in the world condemned what happened on Sept. 11.”

Olympic viewers, don't forget to thank the IOC while you're watching the Opening Ceremonies tomorrow night.

Thank the committee's leaders for making a politically correct - and wise - decision.

John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist and will be covering the Salt Lake City Games through their conclusion on Feb. 24. Contact him by e-mail at jharris@theblade.com.


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