No medals yet, but lots of political gamesmanship

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2012 - 10:23 AM

LONDON-- When Mariel Zagunis carries the U.S. flag into Olympic Stadium on Friday night, the fencer said she would have only one objective. "I'm going to focus on not tripping," she said, "and not letting the flag touch the ground."

But will the two-time Olympic gold medalist dip the flag when she passes in front of the British heads of state? The United States is among the few nations that do not make that gesture during the athletes' entrance at the Olympics, a tradition that historians say began in London at the 1908 Summer Games. According to one version of the story, U.S. track athlete Ralph Rose refused to dip the flag before King Edward VII, saying, "This flag dips to no earthly king."

The Olympics' return to London raised the issue again this week, although it was hardly the biggest flap involving a flag. Despite the insistence of officials and athletes that the Olympics should transcend politics, the two inevitably intersect, often in uneasy fashion. That was underscored multiple times Thursday as London made final preparations for Friday's Opening Ceremony.

The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games apologized to North Korea for mistakenly showing the South Korean flag on the scoreboard as its women's soccer team was introduced. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said it was "hard to know just how well" the Olympics would fare in London, then backtracked from those remarks later in the day. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) issued a statement demanding that American political groups stop using Olympic imagery in attack ads.

On Wednesday, a crowd of Bangladeshis gathered across the street from the St. Pancras hotel -- where the country's official delegation is staying -- to loudly protest against its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. And widows of two of the 11 Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics urged those attending the Opening Ceremony to observe a moment of silence, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) again rejected their request to officially include one.

Thursday brought plenty of joy and anticipation as well, with thousands gathering to watch the Olympic torch being paraded past landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park. Prime Minister David Cameron promised the Opening Ceremony would include some "spine-tingling" moments. Zagunis said she expects to feel one when she carries the flag into the stadium, and she hopes the official start of the Games will shift the conversation away from politics and back onto play.

"When it comes to the meaning of the Olympics, it's about sport," she said. "It's not about politics, religion or anything else. It's just a matter of celebrating athletes and competition and doing what we're here to do."

Zagunis, elected flagbearer by a committee of athletes, had not been through a rehearsal and knew little of the flag-dipping history. USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said that dipping the flag before the host nation's leaders is no longer part of International Olympic Committee protocol, though other countries continue to do it.

USOC chief Scott Blackmun said his organization had been discussing the flag dip but did not seem concerned about any fallout. "We have traditions," he said. "Britain has traditions. Everybody has traditions. We're still talking internally, but I don't think it's a big issue."

The USOC also addressed the question of the Munich widows' request. Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano held a news conference in London on Wednesday and presented a petition to IOC president Jacques Rogge, with 107,000 signatures from those supporting a minute of silence at the opening ceremony. Their husbands were among the athletes who died after they were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in the Olympic Village at Munich.

Rogge has said the Opening Ceremony is "an atmosphere that is not fit'' for remembrance of a tragedy. The widows have asked those at the ceremony to stand in silence during Rogge's speech. Sandusky said the USOC would neither endorse nor forbid such a gesture from athletes, and Blackmun added that he expected "positive behavior" from the athletes as they enter the stadium.

"The Olympic Games generally express a desire to refrain from making political statements within the venues," Sandusky said. "At this point, the athletes themselves may or may not decide to do that.''

There did not seem to be any lingering hard feelings about Romney's remarks. Blackmun said the American delegation's experience in London had been "nothing but positive," a sentiment echoed by many athletes Thursday.

The political issues could continue to play out at the opening ceremonies. Zagunis hopes the evening will reflect warmer feelings -- and that neither tripping nor dipping will define her walk around the stadium floor.

"I'm such a fan of the Olympics," she said. "I've always watched the opening and closing ceremonies and been so proud to watch my team march. To be their leader ... I can't believe I'm the one who's going to have that honor. It's a cherry on top of the pile of cherries that's already there."

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