Cultures, opinions plentiful in, around Olympic Stadium

Tight-knit community in Utah gets an earful during opening ceremony

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 09, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - On these quiet, tree-lined streets just south of the University of Utah's campus, the world's races, religions, friends and foes got reacquainted last night.

The backdrop, of course, was the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics, an event that finally arrived in this city after seven years of planning and billions of dollars of spending.

But unlike the polite party inside Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium that was broadcast around the world, with its fancy lighting and Bob Costas voice-overs, the streets outside were full of unscripted emotion, as thousands from around the world traded pins, patriotism and prejudice.

Not far from the entrance, Ben Phelps, who flew in last night from Topeka, Kan., held an anti-gay sign written in red, white and blue. His Westboro Baptist Church was here to preach against U.S. sins, and if that meant its members would be ducking insults and bottles, that was fine by them.

"We're here to let people know that God hates this country, and this Olympic spectacle is a prime example of why," Phelps said. "Look all around you; all you see is sin. Everyone is saying God bless America and we love the USA. It's sick. It's jingoism at its worst. People wonder why Sept. 11 happened. Well, it's pretty clear to me."

But just up the street, LaNay Robbins of Idaho Falls, Idaho, had a very different take. As she helped her mother straighten a crooked flag that hung from the family porch, Robbins discussed plans with her family about cheering on a downhiller from Idaho, Picabo Street, and the pride they felt as Americans.

"I think this is wonderful," Robbins said. "People asked me, `Why do you want to go to the Olympics' and I told them, `Because this is what makes America wonderful.' President Bush said we need to live our lives, and I think we're doing that. We can only stay for the weekend, but we're coming back next weekend because it's so much fun."

Some 2 1/2 hours after the ceremony began, Mike Eruzione and the rest of 1980 gold-medal-winning U.S. hockey team lit the Olympic cauldron.

Before the ceremony began, everywhere you looked, someone wanted to either tell you something or sell you something. Grown men barked out requests for opening ceremony tickets, which were going for more than $450 just an hour before the ceremony, and anything with a flag or even a hint of patriotism was a hot item.

On one corner, 10 separate street vendors offered USA necklaces, pins, badges, flags, hats, glow-sticks and T-shirts to a large crowd of winning buyers.

"I think that the expression of patriotism is something that is in fact a prerogative of any nation that hosts the games," said Lloyd Ward, secretary general of the International Olympic Committee.

"We certainly expect to see flags flying and chanting of `USA', but frankly I think the difference is that every Olympic Games needs to be expressed as part of the world community. It is our connection with each other."

With 160 countries here speaking 50 languages and cheering on 2,500 athletes, the connection, Ward conceded, isn't always going to be a harmonious one. Even among Americans, who came from places like Florida, California, Virginia and Texas just to get a word in the dialogue of nations.

"We're here because we feel the Olympics and Mitt Romney [president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee] have sold out their ethics for profit," said Kristie Phelps, who was campaigning for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is protesting the Olympic rodeo exhibition, which is part of the cultural Olympiad. "The Olympics are about peace and togetherness, not harming animals for the entertainment of others."

For Salt Lake City residents, it was an awful lot to absorb in one evening. Cousins Kelsee Speakman, 9, and Marissa Speakman, 6, stood on their front lawn, selling hot chocolate, despite the fact that a short distance away, a woman in a low-cut wedding dress with full angel wings draped an American flag around her neck and posed barefoot for photographer Damian Miles.

"Angels are such important icons in our culture, we wanted to capture a scene of one at an event that was completely historic and American," said Miles' assistant, who said she goes only by the name Suka.

"With all the ugliness in the world, we try to shoot angels at events that are graceful and show how wonderful and graceful America can be."

Sean Boswell, an accountant who drove to Utah from Tampa, Fla., hoping to get tickets, had mixed emotions about the shouting and the proselytizing.

"It kind of makes me laugh," Boswell said, pointing to a truck that was circling the stadium with photos of aborted fetuses on its side. "If that were a picture of two young people having sex, the cops would pull them over and yank them out of their van."

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