- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

The United States Olympic Committee says athletes are free to wave the American flag and celebrate their victories with emotion during the Olympic Games in Athens this summer.

The USOC “wants to make it absolutely clear that we have not — and will not — instruct our athletes to refrain from waving the United States flag,” the organization’s chief executive, Jim Scherr, said in a memo released late Tuesday night. “Any suggestions or statements to the contrary do not reflect the official position of our organization.”

Scherr added, “Athletes will be free, as always, to celebrate their performances in an exuberant, respectful way. … We will remind our athletes that they are guests of the Olympic movement, Greece and the city of Athens, and to be good ambassadors of our country, their communities, families and sports.”

Last week USA Today reported that the USOC, in light of world events, was cautioning athletes on their behavior during victory celebrations, especially the manner in which they displayed the flag. The story noted that former USOC spokesman Mike Moran had been hired as “senior media consultant” to give seminars on behavior and sportsmanship.

“It’s not business as usual for us at these Olympics,” Moran told the newspaper. “We’re telling athletes who like to jump around and yell and grab a flag from the audience and wrap themselves in it that they should rethink their exuberance for this Olympics, not only for their own safety but because of the way that some of the world views us.”

During the weekend, as 550 prospective Olympic athletes met in New York, USOC president Bill Martin was quoted as saying, “We are not the favorite kid in the room as a country. We are sensitive to the issue of flaunting and jingoism in its raw sense. This is going to be a tough Games for us as a country.”

It is well known that U.S. officials were embarrassed by the conduct of the gold medal-winning 400-meter relay team in the 2000 Olympics. But a bigger motivation for the posture seemed to be the perception of the United States throughout the rest of the world, especially following the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.

“Given the current international climate, we want to make sure our athletes are well-advised and know what they might face in Athens,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel told reporters.

The London Sunday Telegraph quoted Moran as saying, “Unfortunately, using the flag as a prop or a piece of apparel or indulging in boasting behavior is becoming part of our society in sport, because every night on TV we see our athletes — professional, college or otherwise — taunting their opponents and going face-to-face with each other. We are trying for 17 days to break that culture.”

The lead in the Telegraph story read, “American athletes have been warned not to wave the U.S. flag during their medal celebrations at this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens, for fear of provoking crowd hostility and harming the country’s already battered public image.”

The USOC insists that waving the flag is acceptable. Still, Scherr noted in the memo that “we are reminding [the athletes] to treat the United States flag with the respect it deserves.”

Lisa Fernandez, who is trying to win her third gold medal as a member of the U.S. softball team, attended the meetings in New York but said she did not believe much was made of this issue.

“The USOC wasn’t requiring athletes to do anything other than respect the flag, and not do anything degrading to another country,” she said.

Training in San Antonio, Fernandez, a veteran pitcher who won the final games in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, said she understands the concern over image. But no one, she said, has to tell her or her teammates how to act.

“When it comes down to something like this, it’s not about you, it’s about the entire U.S. delegation,” she said. “The United States of America has to hold itself to certain standards. We’ve got plenty of policing in terms of how to act. It comes from our coach, and it starts from the day we make this team. There’s a certain way to treat our opponents. We fear no one and respect everyone.”

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