It's all gold with red, white, blue

Olympics: Some feel the honor of carrying the U.S. flag at the opening and closing ceremonies rates right up there with winning a medal.


January 26, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

For a few minutes every four years at the Winter Games, an athlete you probably never heard of steps from obscurity into the limelight.

One competitor - chosen by teammates - leads the U.S. team into the stadium with the American flag held high during the opening ceremony.

"If the person is not a household name, they become one, at least for one night," said Lyle Nelson, a four-time Olympian in biathlon, who carried the flag in 1988 in Calgary. "You're the first story of the Olympics because there aren't any medals yet."

There have been 16 U.S. flag bearers (one bobsledder was twice honored) in the history of the Winter Games. Only one was not an athlete.

This year, oft-injured skier Picabo Street has actively lobbied to be No. 17 in what is expected to be her final Olympics. "To be honest," she said, "carrying the flag would become the greatest moment in my career. More important than the silver, more important than the Nagano gold, more important than the medal I expect to win at Salt Lake."

Many athletes say that with qualifying competitions occupying their time, they haven't thought much about who should represent them at the head of the delegation. But if history carries any weight, it won't be Street.

"Over the years, the flag bearers, for the most part, have been low-profile, an athlete with a compelling story or a compelling attractiveness to their teammates," said Mike Moran, chief spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "It's not a popularity contest and it's rarely based on athletic performance."

The night before the opening ceremony, each sport chooses a representative to send to an athletes' meeting with the name of a candidate. The representatives then argue the merits before a vote is taken.

Nelson believes teammate Josh Thompson turned the tide in his favor. Thompson, the highest-ranked American biathlete in the world in 1988, presented Nelson's credentials: 1971 West Point graduate who was pursuing a doctoral degree in business while training for the Games.

"Lots of athletes didn't know I was 39. A lot of them were 21, 22," said Nelson. "Something touched them - maybe that I had become well-rounded while competing. Maybe they made a statement through me: `We are not myopic. We are not self-centered. We know something about the world.'"

The night of the ceremony, Nelson and his teammates lined up behind athletes from the Soviet Union.

"We heard this explosion of welcome as we marched in. It wasn't like a football game, where half the crowd wants to rip your head off," he said. "It was comforting to me to know that the whole world can come together."

Frank Masley, a member of the U.S. luge team who carried the flag in Sarajevo in 1984, said the thrill was over "much too fast, but I enjoyed every minute of it."

Masley said he and doubles partner Ray Bateman expected a different ending to the opening ceremony.

"Our only exposure at that time was seeing it on TV. When it ended, we looked at each other and said, `It can't be over, they haven't played the song yet,' " Masley said of the Olympic theme played by the networks. "We were so disappointed."

Masley and Nelson said they would advise this year's honoree to find a way to keep the flag.

"I should have just stolen it like my partner told me to," joked Masley. "When it came time to turn it in, I tried to avoid [the Olympic official], but she begged me. I kick myself these days."

Some equate carrying the flag to being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a jinx masquerading as a spotlight.

Just ask the Canadians. The past six Olympic flag bearers met with disappointing results, including freestyle skier and 1994 gold medalist Jean-Luc Brassard, who finished fourth in the 1998 Nagano Games and said later that carrying the flag was a mistake.

Speed skater Sylvie Daigle and figure skater Kurt Browning, both world champions, fell short of medals at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics, respectively.

Americans haven't fared much better.

Eric Flaim, a two-time silver medalist in speed skating in 1988 and 1994, carried the flag in Nagano, where he finished sixth in the 5,000-meter relay. Nelson finished ninth as a member of the four-man relay team.

Figure skater Scott Hamilton was flag bearer in Lake Placid in 1980, but didn't strike gold until 1984. And Cameron Myler, four-time Olympian in luge, carried the flag in 1994 in Lillehammer, but was unable to match her fifth-place finish in 1992 in Albertville.

Still, Myler, now a lawyer in New York City, calls being flag bearer "the single best experience at the Games. It was even better than the competition itself."

"I felt not like a luge athlete, but like a representative of sports and the United States," she said.

One question each flag bearer has to weigh, though not this time, is whether to dip the flag in a show of respect to the leaders of foreign host countries.

Shot putter Ralph Waldo Rose began the tradition of not dipping the flag at the 1908 Olympics, and Congress made it law in 1942.

Nelson said ABC sent someone to his room at the Olympic Village the day of the opening ceremony to see if he would defy the law and dip the flag. But Nelson, like Rose and all the others who came after him, did not.

At least one flag bearer used the honor to make a statement - although probably not the one his country expected.

Iraqi weightlifter Raed Ahmed, who carried his country's flag in the Olympics' opening ceremony at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, used the occasion to defect.

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