Too bad: Koch bows to pressure and skips the dip

JOHN EISENBERG

February 09, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ALBERTVILLE, France -- For the first time in Olympic memory, there was a final score to report from the opening ceremonies yesterday in the clear evening chill of the French Alps.

United States: no dip.

It was a self-imposed shutout. Too bad.

The pressure got to Bill Koch, the cross country skier from Redmond, Wash., who had considered becoming the first American in 88 years to dip the flag out of respect for others as he passed the review stand during the ceremony.

He didn't do it. Too bad. It was the perfect day.

"There was a lot of pressure," he said.

The pressure was from the United States Olympic Committee. JTC Koch said some of his teammates also were against it, but what basically happened was the USOC didn't want him using the small flag-bearing honor to make a big statement it wasn't sure about.

Too bad. These opening ceremonies were more than the usual parade. They were a celebration of independence, and of the emergence of the Olympics as a place with fewer political overtones. The dip -- a gesture of humility, and intrinsic humanity -- would have fit the day as neatly as the snow on the distant peaks.

It's not as if it required grand magnanimity, although only four of the 65 flag-bearers -- those representing Croatia, Canada, Monaco and Bermuda -- dipped as they passed French President Francois Mitterand on the stand. Even the French flag-bearer didn't dip.

But that doesn't mean it wouldn't have been oh-so-right for the Americans to make a special contribution to the spirit of the day. Whether it was right for the last 88 years or the next 88 years is not the issue. It was right yesterday.

Marching in front of Koch were the athletes from Estonia, one of the Baltic republics that gained freedom from Soviet rule last year. Instead of marching behind the hammer and sickle, they wore bright blue parkas and waved to the stands behind a blue-black-and-white flag that had been illegal to show in public in the old Soviet Union.

In front of the Estonians were athletes from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the most prominent remnant of the Soviet sports empire. They wore uniforms the color of salmon, not Soviet red. Each waved a little flag from their state.

Not far behind were the Lithuanians and Latvians, the latter marching behind a bobsledder who won a gold medal in Calgary four years ago -- as a Soviet. Imagine how he felt with the Latvian flag in his hand.

Then there was the sight of Wolfgang Hoppe, an East German superstar in the bobsled for years, now leading the unified German team as he carried the flag that was West Germany's during the years a wall divided the country.

Such was the moving spirit of the day. "And I think we all need to have that spirit," said Koch, a four-time Olympian.

Agreed.

Please understand the strong current running underneath these Games. For decades the Soviets and East Germans used the Olympics to make political statements. They were the best, and their athletes often gave credit to the system that produced them. Suddenly, the Games no longer come with such baggage.

Suddenly, the Olympics are a lot closer to the ideal that Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France had in mind when he revived the Games a century ago -- using sports to bring warring nations together.

"I would like to show some kind of recognition and respect for the whole process," Koch said earlier yesterday, when he admitted he was unsure what he would do. "This is not about who is the best nation. It's about who are the best athletes. Maybe it's been a long time since that was the case."

It sounds saccharine, but you must put aside any cynicism on this one. The spirit is genuine. When American speedskater Bonnie Blair was asked the other day about the political changes, she said: "You know what I love? That suddenly I get to meet the parents of all the girls I've skated against all these years. It's beautiful to see those families together at last."

Koch had the same stirrings. He was going to dip not so much to honor France, but this new world. He is a thoughtful 36-year-old who will be seen by some as unpatriotic for even thinking about dipping. But this wasn't about patriotism or the lack of it. It was about what Koch called "being a good citizen of the world." An Olympic world with a lot of new flags.

The people at the USOC should think about the pressure they put on Koch. So should the athletes who advised him not to dip. Why did they do it? Is there no room in the American mind for such a gentle gesture of brotherhood? There should be, especially now.

So many athletes marching yesterday represented people who struggled mightily for their independence. The resulting impact on sports has been a cleansing, and it would have made for a fine moment had Koch dipped the flag out of respect for this new backdrop. His instincts were right on.

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