`Ugly American' rare commodity

Cheers: Foreign fears that American nationalism would give the games a black eye turned out to be unfounded, with many visitors taking home kindness as their fondest memory.


February 23, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - These are great games, by jingo.

Foreign editorialists and members of the International Olympic Committee spent the weeks leading up to the Winter Games complaining about the red, white and blue nightmare they'd be forced to live with for two weeks.

The Ottawa Citizen said: "Before the first puck has dropped, the first luger launched on an icy track, there are signs that America has learned little from 1996 in Atlanta. ... There is every chance the land of the free and home of the brave etc., plans to turn the 2002 Olympics into a daily dose of jingoism that will make Atlanta seem like a high school pep rally."

Even after the cauldron was lighted, the Sydney Morning Herald weighed in: "American nationalism, rather than Olympic idealism, dominated the opening ceremony. ... To date the only goose bumps in Salt Lake City have been produced by the weather."

The fear was based, in part, on the fact that less than 7 percent of the 1.6 million tickets to the games were sold to foreigners, the rest being snapped up by Americans and huge corporate sponsors.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the American nightmare: Spectators and volunteers became citizens of the world.

A Swiss official broke into a huge grin and handed a shuttle bus driver a team pin after the driver told him the transportation system was "running as smoothly as a Swiss watch."

Venue volunteers, many of them former Mormon missionaries home from overseas, acted as impromptu translators for journalists and merchants.

German Glessner of Argentina, statistically the worst slider in men's skeleton, leaped off his sled after his first run, pointed to the wildly cheering crowd and shouted, "Thank you!"

Fans improvised when they couldn't pronounce the names of foreign athletes, at one point chanting "Latvia, Latvia" to the same cadence as the familiar "U-S-A, U-S-A."

Of course, there were some regrettable scenes. U.S. men's hockey coach Herb Brooks did his best Ugly American imitation Monday when asked to comment about the underdog German team's eagerness to mix it up with the Americans.

"Maybe that's why they lost the second World War, guys," Brooks snapped to reporters. "So, you know, I'll draw my line in the sand. Now you can take that and write that."

And U.S. women's hockey fans rubbed in the 10-0 drubbing of Germany in the opening game of the tournament by repeatedly counting off the number of goals.

The foreign press didn't like NBC's coverage much, either, complaining about the cutaway shots to troops in Afghanistan during the opening ceremony. Reporters also commented on President Bush deviating from the Olympic charter, inserting 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."

Nameless International Olympic Committee members were quoted as being miffed, but IOC head Jacques Rogge wasn't one of them.

Rogge, who attended the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Atlanta in 1996, said he was never worried about a smothering American presence.

"We want a warm, supportive public," he said. "We want that, but I also know that Americans will cheer for others. I'm not concerned about bias, jingoism or excessive nationalism."

Foreign fans with World Cup experience said they were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm of the overwhelmingly American crowd, many of whom had never seen some of the events.

"This has been fantastic," said Daniel Jaquet, who has followed the efforts of his nephew, Gilles Jaquet, a Swiss snowboarder. "Everyone has been positive, cooperative."

Said Netherlands team official Marcel Sturkenboom, "I'd give it a nine."

The athletes, too, were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic, capacity crowds. Americans, they had been warned, were indifferent to many of the winter sports.

"I got goose bumps at the start," said Swiss bobsledder Lisa Erdmann, the bronze medalist. "The atmosphere is just excellent."

Luger Markus Prock of Austria was startled by spectators chanting his name, even though he stood between American Adam Heidt and a bronze medal.

`This was unique to me," said Prock. "I would have expected them to whistle and boo, but they were just fantastic."

German bobsledder Ulrike Holzner took to wearing an American flag pin with the one of her country's flag, "just to say thank you. The Americans are just nice and friendly, and it's an amazing experience."

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