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Minding Ps and Qs at the Games

At a sort of Olympics finishing school, U.S. athletes are being taught how to behave themselves when the world is watching.

August 11, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

America's Olympic jocks are being instructed in how to behave on the world stage.

They're being asked by some high-profile past Olympians not to horse around on the medals podium and not to drape themselves in the American flag or make it into a turban or a toga -- as medalists have in the past. They're being urged to turn the other cheek if they're heckled, to walk away from a jeering crowd.

There is a reason for all this concern. The United States' image abroad is hardly stellar, given, among other things, the occupation of Iraq and the graphic photos of abuse that have come out of Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. U.S. Olympic Committee officials know that given the high disapproval rating of U.S. policy around the world, American athletes, who are expected to dominate the Games, could get a hostile reception, as they have on other recent occasions. And though America-bashing is nothing new, the intensity of feeling has spiked upward in recent months.

At a U.S.-Mexico soccer game in Mexico City several months ago, thousands of fans booed during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and many of them chanted "Osama, Osama" during the game. At the world championship meet in Barcelona this year, the American women's synchronized swimming team was heckled while they were preparing to begin their program.

There have been transgressions on the part of Americans in the past, notably the posturing and preening of members of the men's 400-meter relay team after they won the race four years ago at the Sydney Olympics. They wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag, made turbans of it, then aroused more ire by clowning on the medals podium.

Their actions were a source of displeasure even among some of the American athletes, prompting sprinter Nanceen Perry to denounce her own teammates.

"How do you expect anyone to respect our flag if you don't?" she complained at the time. "Foreigners think we're rude, anyway, so it just confirms the whole image they have of us."

And then there were the antics of sprinter Jon Drummond at last year's World Track and Field Championships when he refused to leave the track after being disqualified for a false start.

In a recent commentary on National Public Radio, Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford cited the silliness of then-basketball superstar Charles Barkley during the 1992 Olympics as something to be avoided. Said Deford, "He mugged a skinny basketball opponent from an African team and then chuckled that he couldn't be too sure that he wasn't carrying a spear.

"We all laugh, if nervously, but obviously we can't afford to truck with that sort of supercilious attitude. This summer in sports is probably a better time to accept our dominion graciously rather than to remind our neighbors of it."

In an attempt to keep the theatrics and boorish behavior to a minimum, the U.S. Olympic Committee has enlisted the help of former swimming phenom Janet Evans, who won four Olympic gold medals, and Bob Beamon, who shattered the world long-jump record at the 1968 Mexico City Games. They've been staging sessions with athletes about the do's and don'ts of the Olympics.

"The seminars are totally voluntary," said U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel. "They aren't lectures or anything like that. It's an opportunity to really gain and benefit from the insight of two of the most respected Olympians we have."

That may be so, but one of the major points of the seminar is about the use of the flag. It's clear that the USOC doesn't want American athletes showing off to the rest of the world with the stars and stripes.

"We want them to treat the flag with the respect and dignity it deserves," Seibel said. "Wave the flag with pride and honor, but don't use it in a disrespectful way to taunt your opponent, and don't use it as a prop."

Evans and Beamon said the sessions -- held mainly at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo. -- were unscripted and that much of the time was spent answering questions.

So will this year mark a new high in Olympian dignity? All they can do is coach them, said Evans, who swam in three Olympics. In the end, "they have to all make their own adult decision about how to act."

One film they use depicts good and bad ways of acting during the Games. Topping the bad list is the U.S. relay team, which included sprinters Maurice Greene, Bernard Williams, Brian Lewis and Drummond. (On Tuesday Greene announced to a press conference in Athens that he is "the best sprinter in history.") Another on the bad side is swimmer Amy Van Dyken, who spat in an opponent's lane before a race.

The good include swimmer Anthony Ervin, who tied for the gold with Gary Hall Jr. in the 50-meter freestyle, and tennis star Venus Williams. Evans said they both comported themselves well and were not overly dramatic.

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