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Empathy for America at Olympics

February 11, 2002

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MIDWAY, Utah (AP) _ Narumi Yamada didn’t much care for the solemn display of the World Trade Center flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

``It was a little too much,″ she complained, curling her nose in disapproval.

Yet among a trio of Japanese spectators taking in some skiing Sunday, Yamada was in the minority.

``I can understand the feeling, if I were American,″ countered one friend, her head covered with a black ``Salt Lake City 2002″ beret, a tiny American flag stitched in the side.

Another noted that Japanese skater Midori Ito wore a kimono when she ignited the Olympic cauldron at the 1998 Games in Nagano. That sign of nationalism, Yamada’s friend argued, ``was the same thing.″

Only days old, these Olympics already have been tagged by the international press as overly political and patriotic, with the flag display during Friday night’s curtain-raiser drawing the most criticism. ``Exaggerated,″ ``annoying″ and downright ``wrong,″ wrote newspapers around the globe.

However, reviews from international visitors at the games reflect a much more conciliatory tone _ a sign, some say, of a world turned more empathetic toward the United States after Sept. 11.

``We were perceived as really taking a hit, and it’s not that common for Americans to be in the down position,″ said sports psychologist Carole Ogelsby, professor emeritus at Temple University. ``It really shook up the international people, and there’s going to be a lot of support for Americans.″

Athletes from Italy, France and Ireland carried miniature American flags during the opening extravaganza in a show of unity with the host nation. Other international visitors didn’t mind the flag presentation during the ceremony. They, like most Americans, found it simple and suitable.

``Absolutely not,″ Canadian Rick Nickelchok responded when asked whether the display was too political. ``I didn’t see anything excessive. It was symbolic and appropriate.″

``That was OK, in light of the situation,″ Olej Haugan of Norway said as he strolled around downtown Salt Lake City. ``It’s a kind of marking″ the terror attacks and remembering its victims.

The congeniality extended beyond the opening ceremony. Both men agreed that the chest-beating and hyper-patriotism Americans are known for have so far been more restrained at these games.

Nickelchok, team leader of his nation’s biathlon contingent, has seen little overt or obnoxious nationalism.

``Regardless of who was coming across the finish line, everyone was cheering,″ he said. ``There’s a lot of support for all the athletes.″

That could be due, in part, to organizers’ mission of staging an Olympics that reflect American pride but are ``seen and felt as if there are arms open, embracing the world,″ as organizing chief Mitt Romney put it.

Even U.S. athletes have advised fans to keep their patriotic whooping to an inoffensive din or, at the very least, add a global spin to the cheers.

``I hope the people chanting `USA! USA!′ support the other countries,″ skeleton racer Jim Shea said. ``The Olympics are about the world coming together in a peaceful competition.″

That may be true, but the fact remains that the Olympics are often about rooting for the home team.

Take Sydney during the 2000 Games, where cries of ``Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy!″ rippled through stadiums and streets. Or the Nagano Games, where cheers of ``Banzai!″ echoed at skating rinks and ski jumps.

Americans, in particular, are typically viewed as taking the patriotic fervor too far.

``That’s America,″ said Gianluca Ghiselli, a member of the organizing committee of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, who is visiting Salt Lake City for a preview.

``American people are very proud to be American. We expect that,″ Ghiselli said. ``Is it offensive for us? No. I am sure that in Italy it will be much more offensive.″ On second thought, Ghiselli said, ``No. I’m only kidding.″

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