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9-11 made the Olympics that much more important

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY

On 2-11 there was vigorous competition at a variety of Winter Olympic venues. And people were talking Picabo Street, figure skating and women's hockey. Thank goodness.

But it'll be a while until any date bearing "11" doesn't call for reflection.

Can't help it. The world has changed since the "11" five months ago Monday. Consequently, these Olympics have a different aura.

And dealing with that requires a delicate balancing act of nationalism, competitive fire and international goodwill.

Fanned by the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over displaying the World Trade Center Flag in the Opening Ceremonies, some in the international community have accused America of making these "Patriot Games."

Can't help it. American athletes trained under the specter of 9-11. And their red, white and blue zeal reflect a wave of patriotism not seen in decades. American flags are in. People really stand at attention now for the Star-Spangled Banner.

By a quirk of fate, American biathlete Jeremy Teeler, a mountain ranger in the Vermont National Guard, could be patrolling the slopes here rather than competing below.

To several U.S. athletes who are in the military, the concept of representing their comrades thousands of miles away by giving their best in international athletic competition is important.

Most every U.S. competitor appears on a mission: to become a positive icon for those fighting to keep terrorism from poisoning freedom -- a freedom that allows an athlete like Dan Campbell to go from living out of a truck to being the flag-bearer for his sport (biathlon).

"I met some members of the New York police and fire departments at the Opening Ceremonies and that gave me extra fire," said freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke, who won America's first medal.

"When 9-11 happened, I think the Olympics skyrocketed in importance," said biathlete Jay Hakkinen, "not only for us, but the world. It shows the importance of goodwill. And that's part of the healing process."

Flag-waving and national pride -- among all nations -- is the lifeblood for the Olympics, no matter how officials try to disguise it. National pride is part of every athlete's fiber. Nothing wrong with that. People from different countries waving their flags and showing their colors creates a flavor that make the Games delicious.

But note the contrasting flow of messages:

The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Olympic Hockey Team lit the flame. Members of that team were instant heroes partly because they whipped the hated Russians. The Russians are now vital allies.

America's first gold medal was won by a snowboarder -- representing a group stereotyped as just punishment to their parents for being hippies in a less-patriotic era.

And American athletes are outfitted in uniforms developed by a Canadian designer. The U.S. youngsters went that direction because they considered the Canadians to have had cooler duds the last two Olympics. Flag-waving apparently has its limits when it comes to nice threads.

Eastern European (former Iron Curtain) hockey players on American teams? Americans saluting a snowboarder? Canada the official supplier of U.S. uniforms?

On 2-11, it was indeed a crazy, new world.

David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics.



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