Olympic opening ceremonies can be very emotional

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Mark Grimmette understands the dilemma.

As a United States Olympian, Grimmette knows his countrymen see the 2002 Winter Olympics as the next step in America's recovery from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Muskegon, Mich., native welcomes the patriotic feelings sure to be generated by what could be the best Winter Games performance ever by a U.S. team.

At the same time, though, Grimmette also understands that these are not just America's Games. The Olympics belong to the world, which means the host United States must do more than salve its still-mending wounds on this international stage.

Even so, when the Games begin tonight with the colorful, emotional Opening Ceremonies at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium, Grimmette and seven other U.S. Olympians will proudly carry the American flag recovered from the World Trade Center rubble as a symbol of resilency, defiance and determination.

"It's very difficult to know where to draw the line on something like this,'' said Grimmette, a bronze medalist in the luge doubles at the 1998 Nagano Games.

"I would hope people see this as a reaction to something that happened to the whole world and not just to America,'' he added. "Yes, it happened on U.S. soil, but it also happened to a lot of world citizens. I think this should be viewed as such.''

The display of the WTC flag has become a minor international issue in the days leading up to the most costly, most security-conscious Winter Olympics in history.

Officials of the International Olympic Committee, always anxious to keep political matters out of the Games, have been reluctant to let America wrap itself in a fire-damaged flag. Different proposals regarding its display were proposed and altered.

Eventually, all sides agreed that the flag would be carried by a group of U.S. Olympians that include Grimmette, figure skater Todd Eldredge and skeleton athlete Lea Ann Parsley, herself a firefighter.

"There was even discussion about including athletes from other countries in this presentation,'' said Sandy Baldwin, president of the United States Olympic Committee. "There were 80 countries who lost people in the World Trade Center, so it truly was an international event.

"I haven't heard a single word of resentment about this, and I've been right in the middle of this.''

Jim Shea, the skeleton athlete who will take the Olympic Oath tonight on behalf more than 2,100 athletes from 77 countries, believes the display of the WTC flag and the safe proceding of these Games can symbolize a world standing united against terrorists.

"That flag is so important to so many people,'' Shea said. "It wasn't just an attack on me and my family, but on everyone in the world. So many countries lost people when those buildings collapsed. I think it's important to a lot of people to have that flag there.''

It is with that still-present terrorist threat in mind that the Games will begin amid $310 million in security measures provided by man, machines and technology.

"I've never felt so secure,'' said Amy Peterson, the four-time Olympic speed skater who was chosen by her teammates to carry an undamaged American flag at the head of the United States team procession.

Final preparations continued through Thursday night as organizers prayed that a transportation system designed to get people from Salt Lake City to the skiing and sliding events in the fog-shrouded Wasatch Mountains functions efficiently.

The Olympic Torch completed its cross-country journey Thursday night, arriving to a large, enthusiastic welcome in downtown Salt Lake City. The identities of the final torchbearers remain a secret, though the first full reunion of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice'' American hockey team may provide a clue.

NBC will begin 375 hours of Olympic coverage at 8 p.m. EST. Its opening telecast will offer a mix of patriotism (in the hour before the ceremonies begin) and pagentry. With President George W. Bush in attendance, musical groups as divergent as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Dixie Chicks, Yo-Yo Ma and R. Kelly, will join in the pomp and circumstance.

Producers of the Opening Ceremonies went through a full dress rehearsal on Wednesday. Included was the security screening of a near-capacity crowd, with volunteers reporting that it took upwards of a hour for some to clear the process.

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