Chariots of Ire: Is US Jingoism Tarnishing the Olympic Ideal?
Published on Friday, February 15, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Chariots of Ire:
Is US Jingoism Tarnishing the Olympic Ideal?
by Duncan Mackay in Salt Lake City
 
The wave of American jingoism and intense security that has marked the first week of the Winter Olympics here has led to senior officials of the International Olympic Committee privately expressing concerns about whether the US can ever stage another Olympic event.

The games have already been dubbed the "red, white and blue Olympics" because almost every event has patriotic overtones in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11. Nationalism has always been a part of the Olympics but IOC officials here feel the event is being used simply as propaganda for the US war effort.

"This is a show designed to send a message to Osama bin Laden," said one IOC member. "President Bush is saying: 'Look at us: you bombed us but you can't stop us going about our normal lives.' But that is not what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about."

The IOC is embarrassed that the very public presence of the 15,000 police and military is projecting a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere for an event that, since its first staging in 1924, has been a sedate, friendly festival. There are more American security personnel here than in Afghanistan and three times as many as were present at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles during the cold war with the Soviet Union.

"Bush wants to show the American public that he can guarantee their security and they have nothing to worry about," said the IOC member.

The heavy-handed security operation could have serious repercussions for a proposed bid from New York for the 2012 Summer Olympics. IOC officials have been speculating openly that if it requires this much effort to protect an isolated area in the midwest, then how many troops would be needed to secure the world's most famous city. "It just can't happen," said another IOC member.

From being forced to back down in the row over using the flag recovered from the World Trade Center ruins at the opening ceremony to the overt security operation, the lords of the rings are angry.

The tone was set during the opening ceremony when President Bush broke with protocol by opening the games from a position among a group of US athletes. He then departed from the Olympic charter when he put the words "On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation", in front of the official line, "I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City..."

Heavy security

The IOC fears that this could set a precedent for future heads of states to follow when they open the games in their countries. "How [might] Americans react in six years [at the 2008 Beijing games] if China's head of state decides to stand in the midst of his nation's Olympic team, declaring how the indomitable will of the Chinese nation has brought the games to the world?" said Ed Hula, the editor of Around The Rings, an American newsletter covering Olympic politics.

The host broadcaster, NBC, also linked the opening ceremony with the war effort when, during the parade of nations, it referred to the Iranian athletes as part of Mr Bush's "axis of evil". During the ceremony NBC made frequent crosses to American troops in Afghanistan, who pointed to the flag on their uniforms and chanted "USA".

Earlier this week the FBI and CIA were forced to tone down the intense security searches of competitors following complaints from many international teams that their athletes were being harassed. Athletes have everything searched repeatedly, and must often queue in sub-zero conditions for more than 30 minutes.

A Russian silver medallist was upset that she was asked to drink from her water bottle to prove it contained water as she was trying to get into the cross-country venue. "Every day we have to go through the same annoying procedures," said Larissa Lazutina. "It's a put-down for the athletes."

Matters took an even more bizarre turn yesterday when nine musicians from a California band had their bus stopped and searched 60 miles south of Salt Lake City after a convenience store clerk told officials they had asked about security checkpoints at the games."It was a surprise and it was funny," said a band member. "What wasn't so funny was that they asked us what ethnic groups were on the bus and after they searched the whole bus and found some articles about terrorism, they pulled one of our guys aside and questioned him a lot."

Terrorist target

Fears of terror attacks have severely affected travel to Salt Lake City. Less than 7% of tickets have been sold to foreigners, and that figure includes the sales to overseas Olympic committees as well as families and friends of competitors. Of the 1.58m tickets available only 100,000 have been sold outside the country.

But that has not stopped these Olympics being an overwhelming success here, with 90% of tickets sold, making it the most successful games ever. Television ratings are also huge: an incredible 72m people, or one in four Americans, watched the opening ceremony on TV while the first day of competition gave NBC its biggest Saturday night audience for six years.

Inspired by competing at home, the American team is set to sow its biggest harvest of medals ever in the Winter games. But even that is not enough for USA Today, the country's biggest-selling newspaper, which is printing a table based on the total number of medals won rather than golds. Using that format, the US, with 10 medals won, are second behind Germany. But in the official list distributed by the IOC, Norway are top having won five gold medals compared with the Americans' three.

A strong anti-American feeling has existed among many IOC members since 1998 when 10 of its members were forced to resign or were expelled after they were found to have accepted a total of $1m in cash, gifts, scholarships and other inducements to win votes for Salt Lake's Olympic candidacy.

The IOC has tried to repair its battered image here by cutting back on many of the regal excesses which have marked its stay in previous host cities. But there is resentment among IOC members that the Salt Lake City leaders who offered the bribes, Tom Welch and David Johnson, have escaped unpunished after 15 felony charges, including bribery, were dropped.

Mr Welch and Mr Johnson are no longer involved with the Salt Lake organizing committee but attended the opening ceremony.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

###