Clothed to communicate


February 24, 2002

The Russians arrive, splendid in long, sweeping coats, the women carrying handsome beaver muffs, the men elegant in double-breasted wool overcoats with fur collars and hats.

They look as if they're heading to an opera instead of the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Little wonder in that. The clothes are copied from a coat the great opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin wears in a portrait painted 80 years ago.

A culture speaks through its clothes, and in the opening ceremonies the athletes make their formal introduction.

So the Russians arrive with art and history on their side. The Americans, putting aside the cowboy hats, are perky and peppy - crackerjack! - in their patriot-blue berets. As a melting pot, with no national dress or tradition, the United States must constantly change, look ahead, create.

The berets become the great collector's item of these Olympics, with 300 buyers at a time waiting to buy them.

The Tajiks travel 6,969 miles from their capital, Dushanbe, to take part. With one athlete entered, members of the small delegation make everyone take notice in their traditional robes embroidered with gold.

Tajikistan's alpine skier, Andrei Drygin, comes in 68th in the first run of the giant slalom, finishing in a dead heat with Laurence Thoms of Fiji.

Most delegations parade in outdoor gear, like the Chinese in bulky, purposeful, gender- and class-obscuring parkas. They're in Salt Lake City to work.

Tonight, they bid each other farewell. The closing is not so formal. It is fun, even rambunctious. The pressure, mercifully, is off.

The delegations break ranks; medals have been won and lost, the world has seen and judged, loved and envied. The guy from Bermuda who wore shorts the first day probably won't tonight.

The clothes have spoken.

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