Athletes asked to behave

Updated: August 13, 2004, 4:00 PM ET
By Steve Woodward | Special to ESPN.com

ATHENS -- Although he might have selected a less disturbing analogy, U.S. Olympic Committee acting chief executive Jim Scherr was trying to clarify once and for all the image he hopes the American team will convey to the world during the 17 days of the Athens Games.

Will it be one of stoic, unwavering discipline or unbridled emotion?

"They are not going to be goose-stepping," said Scherr, conjuring memories of Nazi Germany's military parades while referring to team instructions.

On the eve of the 2004 Olympics, U.S. Olympians are faced with the reality that months of talk and, more than likely, over-analysis about how they must conduct themselves in an era of growing anti-Americanism is about to be put to the test. It begins with the ritual opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium, where the 538-member team enters under the scrutiny of 70,000-plus spectators and a global television audience into the tens of millions.

"I think there is a microscope on our team all of the time," said University of Hawaii athletic director and past U.S. track Olympian Herman Frazier, the 2004 team's chef de mission (a.k.a., team leader).

Frazier's not overstating it. The microscope's always was been there to a certain extent, but never more so than following the 1988 Seoul Games and the 2000 Sydney Games. In Seoul, the U.S. delegation in the opening ceremony become over-exuberant, broke ranks and engulfed parading athletes from other nations who were nearby. The clowning and waving to NBC cameras sparked instant, probably justified, criticism. In Sydney, the men's track relay team was correctly blasted for celebrating like immature children who never were taught proper uses for the American flag. It's not a cape or a fashion accessory.

Now, in an even more complicated world, where U.S. citizens no longer have to wonder how far a terrorist cell will go to attack our values and ways of life, or where American foreign policy has become fuel for intensifying hatred, the stakes are even higher.

We know what constitutes the unacceptable in this scenario. The U.S. cannot afford anything less than a dignified arrival into Olympic Stadium on Friday. American Olympians must curb their tongues, maybe even their enthusiasm and, for sure, any inclination to whine.

Or to vandalize. Vandalize? Surely that would never happen, you say. Yet as recently as Seoul '88, American swimmers were accused of removing an ornamental lion's head from a hotel. And at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games in Japan, professional U.S. ice hockey team members -- whose identities never have been revealed -- enraged their Japanese hosts by trashing at least one hotel room in an obvious display of self-control gone awry.

But, assuming nothing in those extremes in Athens will happen, what the USOC and its athletes can't know for sure until the Games begin is how broadly their behavior will be subject to interpretation.

Is a pumped fist OK? Raised arms? A mid-court hug? A wink and a thumbs-up? Dare anyone in red-white-and-blue smirk or lash out in anger, even in the heat of competition?

"We've taken an extra effort to prepare them in this regard," Scherr said during a Tuesday appearance with Olympians from boxing, fencing and gymnastics at the adidas hospitality facility in the hills above the city. "What we have said (about conduct) has been a little misinterpreted. When (athletes) win, they are free to do what they've always done, which is display the flag proudly."

Additionally, part of the processing of American teams as they check-in at the Olympic Village here is a briefing that includes detailed discussions of life in the Village, security issues, medical issues, behavior and media interaction, Frazier said.

"You will still see enthusiasm," Frazier said. "But we have told them we expect them to be solid citizens."

Still, the interpretation question lingers in the air like Athens' renowned second-hand cigarette smoke. Can a "solid citizen" have a good time? What does that mean?

The U.S. women's basketball head coach, Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor, a homespun southerner if there ever was one, said he found himself thinking about that after the team's first practice upon arriving in Greece at mid-week. He was taking on some of his star WNBA players in a half-court shooting contest and said he was down $100. Pitying their coach, the players suggested one redeeming shot attempt to erase all debt. Chancellor let one fly.

"I thought it was going in and, if it did, I was going to do a little victory lap," he said. "Now I don't know if (a victory lap) meets the USOC's standards of conduct or not. I think we all know we have to watch ourselves in what we say and what we do here."

Three-time basketball Olympian Dawn Staley, elected by fellow Olympians Wednesday to carry the U.S. flag into the opening ceremony, said she and her teammates were given specific instructions about the procession. They will walk in defined "lanes" six abreast, she said. (Frazier later clarified that there will be eight lanes to coincide with the eight lanes on the running track).

"I am sure we are going to be more conscious of how we are viewed," said Staley, who added that the detail of the briefing was "something I've never heard before."

Even Staley, a bona fide role model who operates her own foundation to help kids in the Philadelphia area, expressed concern that the rush of athletic competition is not always conducive to orderly conduct.

"Sometimes, things get out of hand," she said. "But it is nothing but adulation."

Nothing at the Olympic Games seems easy or obvious, at least not compared to the fairly recent past. Security gets tighter. The cost of hosting the Games is higher and higher. Standards get tougher. Suspicion of drug cheats is broader. And, for U.S. Olympians, the lights of scrutiny grow ever brighter.

Is there anything wrong with smiling, crying, shouting, praying, embracing, dancing or jumping for joy?

We'll know soon enough, but at least one U.S. team member prefers to place the days to come in an entirely different context, one that is surely criticism-proof.

Vanes Martirosyan, an Armenian-born member of the U.S. boxing team, competing as Olympian in the 152-pound class, focuses only on the opportunity before him and its symbolism.

"For me," he said, "making the Olympic team and representing this country is my family's way of thanking the U.S. for all it has done for us."

In that light, the solid citizen requirement hardly seems too much to ask.