- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

ATHENS — He might sob. He might scream. If history is any indication, he might submerge his cleats in liquid nitrogen, fashion an American flag into an oversized diaper and moonwalk on his hands across the infield, singing the entire score to “The Pirates of Penzance.”

In Greek.

Fact is, there’s no telling what Maurice Greene will do if he wins another gold medal at Olympic Stadium tomorrow. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Greene, aiming to repeat his 100-meter dash triumph at the Sydney Games. “You’re just acting on emotions after you win that gold medal.”

Here in Athens, emotion is expected: raw, naked, occasionally goofy. The stakes are high, the rewards great, the buildup long and arduous. All the world’s a stage; the athletes are the showmen.

But how much is too much? When does irrational exuberance turn ugly?

To put things another way: Is an electric moment best served by a subsequent electric slide?

Such are the questions facing every competitor, especially Americans. Strike the right tone and you’re a hero to billions, bridging divides in the global village. Plus, you make for great television. Which in turn makes NBC very, very happy.

Hit the wrong note, however, and it’s a heaping helping of international scorn. Chased down with a shot of embarrassment.

Take the Sydney Olympics, where the U.S. men’s 400-meter relay team turned in the most off-putting display of Ugly Americanism until the international release of “Catwoman.” After winning gold, Greene, Jon Drummond, Brian Lewis and Bernard Williams wrapped themselves in American flags, turban and toga-style, then flexed and preened like attention-starved bodybuilders. During the ensuing medal ceremony, Greene stuck his tongue out at cameras.

The whole sequence was about as well-received as New Coke.

“We’ve told the athletes we can start a new tradition with these Games and how great a stage it is in Greece,” says Herman Frazier, a former Olympian and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chef de mission in Athens. “We have talked about the state of the world. We’ve also talked about behavior issues in the past.”

Indeed, USOC officials aren’t just worried about a repeat performance at the Athens Games, they’re scared silly. Especially considering the current global climate.

The war in Iraq and other American actions have been unpopular in Europe and elsewhere; a springtime poll in Greece put the Bush administration’s approval rating around 5 percent. During a U.S.-Mexico soccer match in Guadalajara last year, fans serenaded the American side with jeers of “Osama, Osama!” The U.S. track team recently was booed in France (big surprise).

In Spain, crowds heckled America’s synchronized swimmers.

“We’re not the favorite kid in the world right now as a country,” former USOC acting president Bill Martin said in May. “I had one very high-profile [International Olympic Committee] member say to me, ‘Bill, you have to realize that the rest of the world doesn’t want the United States on top. We only want you on tap.’ Obviously, we’re sensitive to the issue of flaunting. Jingoism, if you will.”

While fans in Athens have been mostly respectful so far — the U.S. men’s basketball team was jeered lustily Tuesday night but only because it was playing Greece — the USOC isn’t taking any chances.

Team leaders have instructed athletes to be on their best behavior, mindful that they often serve as de facto cultural ambassadors; witness Michael Jordan’s recent well-received trip to China or the original Dream Team’s love-in at the Barcelona Games.

During the opening ceremony, the American contingent was instructed to march in orderly rows of eight, a contrast to previous Olympics when U.S. athletes often resembled a group of unruly fourth-graders let out for summer vacation.

American athletes also have been given pamphlets about Greek culture, as well as seminars on decorum from former Olympians Janet Evans and Bob Beamon. Some have been shown a video of Olympic no-nos.

“I believe we’re on that video,” Greene says with a slight smile.

The lessons? Don’t treat the flag like a beach towel. Don’t hock a loogie in an opponent’s lane before a race like former U.S. swimmer Amy Van Dyken. And do not, under any circumstances, make like Hulk Hogan, a la the 4-by-100 team in Sydney.

“I think there is a microscope on our team all the time, with the size of our delegation and the personalities involved,” Frazier says. “You will still see emotion from our team. But we expect them to be solid citizens.”

Easier said than done. With amateurism dead and buried, today’s Olympian straddles two worlds, each with wildly varying standards of decorum.

In professional sports, almost anything goes. NFL players routinely punctuate touchdowns with strutting, taunting and even props. Track athletes, often diva-ish to begin with, have taken up the Sharpie: Two years ago at a meet in Milan, U.S. sprinter Shawn Crawford raced the 200 meters in a Phantom of the Opera mask. Alas, the mask slipped over his eyes, forcing him to veer from his lane and be disqualified.

The Olympics, by contrast, were revived in 1896, under Victorian sporting mores that still hold sway. Good sportsmanship is viewed through a prism of restraint, not exuberance; Greene’s arranging for a friend to spray his running shoes with a fire extinguisher, as he did earlier this year following a race in Carson, Calif., is not the sort of thing 19th century English rowers would have found appealing.

During the U.S.-Greece basketball game, American forward LeBron James spazzed out following a showy, high-flying dunk. U.S. coach Larry Brown immediately parked James on the bench, never mind that his spirited play helped spark a Team USA rally.

“We’re trying to entertain instead of just playing,” Brown harrumphed afterward.

That said, one man’s entertainment is another man’s international incident. And the difference isn’t always easy to suss out.

Mexican 400-meter runner Ana Guevara habitually flexes and kisses her right biceps after crossing the finish line. Is she grandstanding? Not to the millions of women who see Guevara’s kisses as a shot across the bows of Mexico’s machismo-dominated sports culture.

American swimmer Gary Hall Jr. took to the pool deck at last month’s U.S. Olympic trials sporting a red, white and blue flag robe and matching boxers underneath. When the stadium announcer introduced him, Hall flexed his biceps. Jingoism at its worst? Or a clever nod to Apollo Creed in “Rocky,” bringing much-needed attention to a sport often ignored?

NBA players chew gum all the time during games. No big deal? Maybe not: Gum chewing by the Russian national soccer team during the country’s national anthem recently caught the eye of President Vladimir Putin, who issued a scolding rebuke.

Even Greene claims the Sydney relay team was misunderstood.

“The coaches were on one page, the athletes were on another,” Greene said. “The runners wanted six medals, the coaches only wanted to give four.

“So they fussed and fussed, and we only had one day to work on it. At that time, we were just excited and reacting to how we felt. We didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Athletes, Greene adds, work an entire lifetime to reach the Games. An Olympic medal can be the absolute peak of their careers. As such, many athletes say, it’s impossible to predict a reaction to victory.

To wit: American pole vaulter Toby Stevenson competes wearing a hockey helmet. Once, after a win, he rode his pole around the infield like a hobby horse, overcome with joy. Eccentric as it was.

“These things aren’t planned,” U.S. soccer player Kristine Lilly says. “You can’t possibly plan extreme happiness on your face. You can’t possibly plan tears.”

Earlier this week, the Olympic shot put competition was held in ancient Olympia, amid the ruins that once played host to the Games of antiquity. The mood was reverential, unadorned: no bleachers, no signage, few modern trappings.

Still, American shot putter Adam Nelson didn’t alter his pre-throw routine, a clapping, snorting, shirt-tearing production that wouldn’t be out of place in pro wrestling.

“We’re all very competitive people,” Nelson says. “So much energy and intensity. You’re just venting steam.”

Nelson finished with a silver medal. Russia’s Irina Korzhanenko ran a giddy victory lap after winning gold in the women’s contest, holding her nation’s flag like Superman’s cape. Offensive? No one seemed to mind.

“Everybody needs to take the celebrations with a grain of salt,” Nelson says. “Imagine in your own career, if you just won a Pulitzer Prize, are you just going to say, ‘Thanks a lot?’ You might not do it then, but at some point you’re going to go home and shake a little victory dance, pull a ‘Happy Gilmore’ around the tee. You’ll do something.”

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