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9/11 Flag Rises Above the IOC Fray

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Balancing an extraordinary wave of American patriotism against international protocol, Olympic officials decided Wednesday that the torn and tattered U.S. flag recovered at ground zero on Sept. 11 will be carried at Friday night’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

Earlier in the week, a subcommittee of the International Olympic Committee inflamed U.S. passions by saying the flag could be raised at the ceremony--but not carried by American athletes during the parade of nations.

That decision, revealed by IOC and United States Olympic Committee members Tuesday afternoon, drew waves of criticism. Radio talk show lines lighted up across the nation and the USOC received nearly 100 e-mails and dozens of phone calls at its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee, released a statement to the media supporting the plan. Then, hours later, he released another saying he “respectfully disagreed” with it.

In a reversal Wednesday morning, IOC officials announced that at least six U.S. athletes scheduled to compete here and two policemen from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will serve as an honor guard carrying the flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the ceremony, probably before the parade of athletes from the 77 nations participating here from Feb. 8 to 24.

“This will be a solemn, highly dignified procession,” Francois Carrard, director general of the IOC, said during a news conference.

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He also said the flag will be raised over the stadium during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “the American flag will be floated all over the world.”

But Romney said later that the flag is too fragile to be hoisted onto the pole. He said it would be held during the playing of the national anthem.

Buried in rubble for three days before it was discovered, the flag suffered two large tears. It flew most recently inside New Orleans’ Superdome during Sunday’s Super Bowl, but it was not subjected to the inclement weather conditions anticipated for the opening ceremony.

Even under normal circumstances, there often are clashes during the Games between the host nation’s fervor for its own athletes and the ideal of the Olympics as an event designed to bring nations together in peace, friendship and harmony.

Officials and athletes from other countries protested most loudly during the most recent Games in the United States, the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996, because of the U.S. television networks’ focus on American athletes, creating an impression worldwide that Americans believed the Games were first and foremost about Americans.

“We as a country can cheer a little loudly and, to some countries, that is overbearing,” Romney said Wednesday.

Since Sept. 11, local organizers have faced the dilemma of balancing the extraordinary wave of American patriotism against an international sensitivity to American jingoism.

“Every country in the IOC has issues,” said Anita DeFrantz, the senior member of the IOC in the United States. “As Americans, we have to understand it’s a world event and also that we are a guest even though we are the host nation.”

Further complicating the situation were the political ambitions of a couple of the key players: Romney, a former U.S. Senate candidate in Massachusetts who is widely believed to be contemplating another run for office, and USOC President Sandra Baldwin, a candidate for membership in the IOC. Both were aware that missteps could cost them political capital.

But even IOC officials recognized that a special accommodation to American emotions had to be made after gauging public reaction Tuesday. One USOC official, who requested anonymity, said the IOC was facing a “public relations nightmare” after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is in charge of the ground zero flag, leaked to the media that a USOC proposal regarding the opening ceremony had been rejected by the IOC.

Whether that actually occurred is a matter of interpretation. Mike Moran, USOC spokesman, said Baldwin met with the IOC’s coordination commission Saturday and recommended that five U.S. athletes and a USOC official carry the ground zero flag into the stadium after the U.S. team had entered during the parade of athletes. The coordination commission serves as the IOC’s liaison and inspection team for the Games.

The commission, Moran said, replied that the proposal would violate IOC protocol and a compromise was reached--the flag would be raised above the stadium during the ceremony, as it had been during the World Series and Super Bowl. Baldwin approved that idea.

But when the story leaked Tuesday, there was a wave of criticism as the subject became fodder for national talk show hosts and their callers.

Romney, whose plan from the beginning had been to feature the ground zero flag and other remembrances of Sept. 11 in festivities at the stadium before the opening ceremony officially began, denied that his change of heart was motivated by politics. Romney, who lost to Edward M. Kennedy in a run for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, has been mentioned as a future candidate for governor in that state and in Utah.

“It was important to me that the victims of 9/11 were honored and that it be clear that our organization stood with the USOC on this issue,” Romney said.

He said the initial USOC proposal would honor Sept. 11 victims, firefighters and police officers by “connecting them to the spirit of the Olympians.”

But the IOC subcommittee’s compromise solution did not sit well with Dwight Bell, the U.S. team’s delegation chief, who along with several athletes reacted negatively to the plan and protested.

Romney contacted IOC President Jacques Rogge, who, along with other members of the executive board, had never been formally presented with any plan other than the one agreed upon by the coordination commission and Baldwin. They arranged a meeting Tuesday at 9 p.m. at Rogge’s temporary office in the Little America Hotel.

Besides Romney and Rogge, others present were Carrard, IOC vice-president R. Kevan Gosper of Australia, DeFrantz, several administrative assistants and three public relations experts. One was Steve Coltrin, a well-known political campaign operative who is working as an outside consultant for the local organizing committee. Baldwin, who would be elected as an IOC member Wednesday, joined later.

One person present described the discussions as “animated.”

But, by 11:30 p.m., a compromise had been reached.

Representatives of the USOC, IOC and SLOC all said they were pleased.

“The solution we have reached is viewed as excellent by the USOC,” said Bob Ctvrtlik, an IOC member and USOC executive committee member from Newport Beach. “I’m sure the athletes will feel the same way.”

The official U.S. flag-bearer, who will lead the U.S. team into the stadium, and the athletes who will serve on the honor guard for the ground zero flag, were to have been elected by their fellow athletes on Wednesday night.

The flag, Moran said, might also be present during a meeting between President Bush and the U.S. athletes here Friday.


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