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Madden: U.S. politics not an Olympic sport

Saturday, February 09, 2002

Last night, at the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the Ground Zero American flag that was retrieved from the rubble of the World Trade Center played a featured role. It wasn't part of the Parade of Nations, where every country's flag gets equal representation. It was carried into the ceremonies by an honor guard of rescue workers and U.S. Olympians.

The gesture was inspiring and patriotic.

But it was also totally inappropriate.

The Olympics are designed to be devoid of politics. They are supposed to provide neutral turf for pure athletic competition.

Oh, politics occasionally intrude. Boycotts and terrorist attacks have, unfortunately, taken place. U.S. Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists in a "black power" salute while on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. The 1936 Berlin Summer Games were positioned as Germany's master race against everybody else, but African-American Jesse Owens embarrassed Adolf Hitler by nailing down decisive victory for the "everybody else" contingent. The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" was viewed as a morality play within a hockey game, the White House skating against the Kremlin.

Those moments are part of Olympic history. But none were pre-arranged public relations moves choreographed by the host nation.

A nation's flag never before received special treatment in the opening ceremonies. Despite the extraordinary circumstances of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this exception shouldn't have been made. We're not the only nation to endure disaster. Thousands starve every day in impoverished countries. Tragedy is a daily occurrence on most of the African continent.

But the United States asked for -- and got -- special treatment from the International Olympic Committee. Maybe someday we'll realize that our constant desire to put ourselves on a pedestal is one reason a lot of people hate us. And I hope that displaying the Ground Zero flag at Salt Lake City isn't interpreted as daring terrorists to disrupt an event where the impact would be great.

What happened Sept. 11 was terrible. Time has not diminished the level of atrocity. Like any American, I fully support our nation's retaliation, and I hope justice is ultimately served in complete fashion. We should never forget Sept. 11. The victims should always be prominent in our hearts and minds.

But do we have to talk about Sept. 11 all the time? Does it have to intrude on everything we do? Sept. 11 isn't relevant to the Olympics. Sept. 11 isn't relevant to any sporting event. Heck, I watch sports to put the world's troubles out of my mind for a few blessed moments.

I was nauseated by the unbridled jingoism that pervaded the Super Bowl pregame and halftime shows. Everything was so overwrought, so forced.

Why was an Irish band, U2, leading a tribute to those who died in an American tragedy? Where was Bruce Springsteen on one of those rare occasions when you still need him? It was sad to see Paul McCartney reduced to being Mariah Carey's opening act, then choosing to perform "Freedom," his ham-fisted Sept. 11 tribute that might -- seriously -- be the worst song he has written. It was bizarre to see people in the crowd shriek in delight over U2's performance even as the names of those who died on Sept. 11 scrolled up the backdrop behind the stage. It only emphasized the impropriety of the situation.

Now the Sept. 11 public relations juggernaut has rolled into Salt Lake City. But even if the U.S. wins every medal at the Winter Games, it won't avenge or undo Sept. 11.

The Olympics, of course, have long since veered away from being a pure spectacle of athleticism as far as the great unwashed go. Citizens see the medal scoreboard as a barometer for which nation is best. I refuse to believe a medal in curling gives anyone anywhere a reason to feel superior.

No Olympian truly represents his country. Our soldiers in Afghanistan represent America. Those wearing red, white and blue in Salt Lake City are merely playing various games. The Olympics are fun. Entertaining. Even historical within their own context. But they're just games.

Keep that in mind, folks. The Olympics are just games. (Except for figure skating, which isn't even a game, and certainly not a sport. It's just ballet on ice, and they don't keep score during "Swan Lake." But that's another column altogether.) There's no Evil Empire to stare down on the sacred battlefield that is the luge track. The Taliban didn't have time to put together a hockey team before fleeing Afghanistan, so we'll just have to hope for U.S. vs. Canada (and I bet most of yinz cheer for Mario Lemieux, anyway). Just watch and have fun. Remember when sports used to be fun? Remember when sports used to be played without accompanying agendas?

Actually, that gets harder to remember every single day.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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