Sunday, May 16, 2004

NEW YORK — 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 spectacle of victorious athletes grabbing a national flag and parading it around the stadium is a familiar part of international sporting competition, but U.S. Olympic officials have ordered their 550-strong team to exercise restraint and avoid any jingoistic behavior.

The plan is part of a charm offensive aimed at repairing the country’s international reputation after the deepening crisis in Iraq and damaging revelations of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib prison.

“American athletes find themselves in extraordinary circumstances in Athens in relation to the world as we know it right now,” said Mike Moran, a veteran former spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee who has been retained as a consultant to advise athletes how to behave.

“Regardless of whether there is anti-American sentiment in Athens or not, the world watches Americans a lot now in terms of how they behave and our culture. What I am trying to do with the athletes and coaches is to suggest to them that they consider how the normal things they do at an event, including the Olympics, might be viewed as confrontational or insulting or cause embarrassment.”

Four years ago at the Sydney Olympics, members of the victorious American 400-meter relay team were widely condemned for strutting with the U.S. flag after their gold medal presentation. American officials, mindful of the country’s precarious standing in world opinion, are desperate to avoid any repeat.

“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,” Mr. Moran said. “We are trying for 17 days to break that culture.

“What I am telling the athletes is, ‘Don’t run over and grab a flag and take it round the track with you.’ It’s not business as usual for American athletes. If a Kenyan or a Russian grabs their national flag and runs round the track or holds it high over their heads, it might not be viewed as confrontational. Where we are in the world right now, an American athlete doing that might be viewed in another manner.”

Mr. Moran added that the behavior of British athletes could face similar scrutiny in Athens, though the British Olympic Association insists there are no plans to ban them from celebrating with the Union flag.

“It’s up to every athlete how he or she wishes to celebrate their Olympic success, and there are no plans to issue any instructions,” a spokesman for the association said. “We are confident that every athlete will celebrate in a responsible way.”

The USOC’s anxiety at overexuberant displays of jingoism is a far cry from scenes at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where the American flag became the defining symbol of the Games.

A different environment awaits the American team in Athens, where officials are anxious to replace apple pie with humble pie.

Americans were booed at the World Athletics Championships in Paris last year largely because of Jon Drummond’s histrionic protest at his disqualification from a heat of the 100 meters. Also, at an Olympic soccer qualifying match in Mexico earlier this year, the American team was subjected to sustained razzing by a section of the crowd, including chants of “Osama, Osama!”

“We’re not the favorite kid in the world right now,” conceded Bill Martin, the USOC’s acting president. “We are sensitive not only to the security issue, but to jingoism in its raw sense. That is why we are sending people around to educate the athletes as to the appropriate behavior.”

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