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Medals Ceremony venue a good place to have unabashed patriotism

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY - The boldest performance mandate ever made by the United States Olympic Committee didn't go far enough.

They asked for 20 medals. They should have asked for 17 golds.

And they might as well as have stipulated a little timely spacing, too, ordering one each day from the start to end of the 2002 Winter Games.

That way, every night could have been like Sunday in Salt Lake City.

Every time 20,000 people got together at the seminal spot of these Games, where shadow dancers are projected through a shear backdrop, acrobats and gymnasts bound across a giant stage and headline entertainers play free concerts nightly, everyone could have gotten what they were really going there to see anyway

An American athlete standing on the top of a podium.

The U.S. flag being raised above others.

People lipping the words of the national anthem, while blinking away tears.

That's what went on Sunday night at the Olympics Medals Plaza, the large fenced square in downtown Salt Lake where the medals won each day are distributed in a shared ceremony each night. Bobsledders might follow lugers who might follow biathletes onto the medal stand, which rotates dramatically from out of view to center stage just in time, surprisingly enough, for NBC's prime-time broadcast.

Sunday night, Kelly Clark went to the top of that stand, having won America's first gold at these Olympics. And the open-air Medals Plaza went through the roof.

Cheering had been enthusiastic for the ceremonies recognizing winners in speed skating, downhill skiing and ski jumping. And the anthems of Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands were recognized with due respect.

But when the 18-year-old snowboarder who had won the women's halfpipe earlier Sunday started her climb on the stage, the volume rose up with her.

The temporary stands suddenly shook. American flags that hadn't been seen before started waving everywhere, little ones in quick flips and big ones in sweeping waves. The first few bars of the Star Spangled Banner were even drowned out by instinctive cheering, until people seemed to remember that they were supposed to be quiet.

Too patriotic? Too bad.

This reaction was earned, not choreographed. It was the natural recognition of excellence that even those so anxious to criticize America's eagerness at these Olympics should have no problem accepting.

In fact the whole Medals Plaza idea should be exempt from international nitpicking.

There's a spot like this at every Olympics, a public gathering place for those who want to share in the Games but not dissolve their savings to do so. They are designed as somewhere for families to go and so that different cultures can mingle. But they are always a place to extol the home team, the crowd's favorite as clear cut as at a college football game.

It certainly was Sunday night.

"It was really amazing hearing the national anthem up there in your own country,'' said Clark, who had not visited the Medals Plaza before she had a reason to go. Free shows by the Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies, Nsync and others are expected to draw both spectators and athletes there every night. "It think they did a great job with it. It was awesome. I'm just happy to get a medal, anytime, anyplace.''

Time and place both meant something to Clark's performance Sunday.

Whether or not hers was the first of many American gold medals in Salt Lake, it established a guide for how they all will be celebrated at the emotional center of these Games and when emotions are still confused throughout America.

"It's been a tough half a year here in the United States,'' said Clark, holding her medal. "Maybe this is something that gives people hope and pride in the country.''

Not everything at these Olympics has got to be tied into the tragedy our country suffered five months ago Monday. But some things are natural tie-ins.

Like 20,000 people singing the national anthem for the first time at the first major international event since Sept. 11. And a teenager with a limitless future acknowledging a national hurt not yet passed.

It should be so good every night here.

There might have been a point, when only Salt Lake City's ear, nose and throat guys thought this Medals Plaza was a good idea, that having 20,000 people sit through two hours in the cold might have the whole Olympic city sniffling by the second week.

But, a few more nights like Sunday, and it might just look like the best Olympic move since the athletes started wearing clothes.

Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics for the Morris News Service. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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