Friday, August 13
Americans receive warm reception - for now
ATHENS - Where were the boos? The whistles of disapproval? The loud shrieks of protest? Weren't the Americans supposed to be greeted by a terrible show of anti-American sentiment as they marched in Friday's Opening Ceremonies?
Well, here's what the American delegation heard as they followed women's basketball star Dawn Staley into the shimmering Olympic Stadium:
Lots of them.
Maybe a smattering of dissent, barely audible above the din. But not much. For the most part, there was respectful cheering, the kind you might have heard for Canada. Or Italy. Or maybe Spain.
This was not the reception the U.S. delegation was expecting - especially after Tuesday night's rehearsals for the Opening Ceremonies, when fans lustily booed and whistled when the American team was announced.
"If they boo, they boo," Staley said Thursday. "I can't affect how other people feel. My life has been tremendous in our country. There have been decisions made that are out of my control, but I love the country I live in. And I'm going to walk into that stadium with dignity."
For months, American athletes had been told to be on their best behavior. No prancing, they were instructed. No mugging for the cameras. No jumping around like it's kindergarten recess. The Americans, always known for their exuberance - and over-exuberance at times - were told by U.S officials to show pride without showing anything that could be construed as disrespect.
And the crowd, most of it Greek, returned the gesture on this glorious Olympic night.
Now it's up to the Americans, more than anybody else, to sustain that spirit of goodwill. That means maintaining a calm and dignified pose, and not acting like the 4x100 relay team did in Sydney. Nobody is asking the Americans to be ashamed of their country. They are asking Americans to be mindful of these times, to be respectful, to be smart.
"We've told the athletes we can start a new tradition here," said Herman Frazier, the U.S. chef de mission, as he addressed the issue of the team's conduct on the changing world stage. "We look for a very nice and orderly team here. This is not about being unpatriotic. Let's just be cognizant of what's around us out there."
No, this is not what we expected. But, then, we'd been led to believe the very worst, not only about the behavior of fans at these Games, but the city of Athens.
And so far, we have been completely wrong on every count.
Make no mistake: There is simmering anti-Americanism, both here and around the world.
Many Greeks still despise America for supporting the ruling junta here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The U.S. Embassy here has been splattered with eggs and red paint and hateful graffiti.
In the recent past, the government has backed demonstrations against the American war effort in Iraq, even closing schools so students could attend those protests.
A recent poll here showed that 77.5 percent of Greeks have a negative view of the United States, a number that has skyrocketed since the military action in Iraq.
For one night, though, all was forgotten. For the Greeks, it was a giant "in-your-face," to the International Olympic Committee, to the media, and even to forces inside the country that believed these financially bloated Games would be a Big Fat Greek Disaster. (Before the official start of the Opening Ceremony, organizers poked fun at themselves, sending out a group of construction workers to pound in some final nails.)
This was a night when Greece got to show the world that all its glory is not in the rear-view mirror.
There has been lots of internal debate over whether the staging of the Games is worth the monstrous expense. But nobody can deny that Athens is a transformed city, blessed with a new mass transit system, new roads and improved air quality. Clearly, it's not the smog-bound traffic nightmare we were conditioned to believe it was.
"We don't come simply to have an Olympics," IOC president Jacques Rogge said earlier in the week. "We want to leave a legacy for the people."
For one night, anyway, everybody showed restraint and respect, for one another and for the spirit of the Olympic Games. It was a feel-good moment for the world, a spectacular show celebrating Greek history and culture.
The rough translation is, "Greek hospitality."
It was there Friday night. The hope now - the expectation now - is that lasts for the rest of these Olympic Games.
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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE
CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY
BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star
DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic
IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News
MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service
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