The 2002 Winter Olympic Games are set to open tomorrow in the western U.S. state of Utah. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the threat of terrorism and the pervasiveness of politics look set to be the most visible parts of the inaugural ceremony, which will be presided over by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Washington, 7 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Amid the threat of terrorist attacks and powerful political symbolism, more than mere sport will take center stage tomorrow when the 2002 Winter Olympic Games open in Salt Lake City, Utah.
As athletes from around the world stream into the western American city for the opening ceremonies, spectators will be reminded of more than expected heroics on the ski slopes or the much-anticipated duel between hockey's top stars -- Jaromir Jagr of the defending gold medalists the Czech Republic and his former National Hockey League (NHL) teammate, Mario Lemieux of Canada.
Following warnings yesterday by the Central Intelligence Agency that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network is still active and could strike at the Games, sports fans around the world will be reminded that much has changed since the 11 September attacks on America and the ensuing U.S.-led war against terrorism.
Under unprecedented security precautions and in the presence of U.S. President George W. Bush, a group of U.S. athletes -- joined by New York City firefighters and police officers -- will carry a tattered American flag recovered from the rubble of New York's World Trade Center and hoist it as the host nation's anthem is played.
That procession, which will not be part of the main march of athletes into the stadium, provided the first political controversy -- albeit minor -- of the Games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had originally rejected a U.S. request to carry the flag into the stadium, apparently out of concern about appearances of American jingoism at an international sporting event.
The IOC also had said the raising of that flag -- which has become a powerful patriotic symbol of the pain Americans suffered in September -- would have singled out the U.S. at the expense of other nations whose citizens also died in the attacks on New York and Washington.
But IOC Director-General Francois Carrard told reporters yesterday in Salt Lake City that the new plan will honor all of 11 September's approximately 3,000 victims. Carrard said, "This will be a solemn, highly dignified procession."
Security, too, is very much on peoples' minds in Salt Lake City, where National Guard soldiers are patrolling the streets and car traffic has been blocked from key parts of downtown.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, CIA Director George Tenet warned that Al-Qaeda may be planning attacks at major sporting events in the U.S., such as the Winter Games.
"Al-Qaeda has not yet been destroyed. It and other like-minded groups remain willing and able to strike at us. Al-Qaeda's leaders, still at large, are working to reconstitute the organization and resume its terrorist operations. We must eradicate these organizations by denying them their sources of financing, eliminating their ability to hijack charitable organizations for their terrorist purposes. We must be prepared for a long war, and we must not falter."
Lindsey Blumell is an editor for KSL radio in Salt Lake City. She said security measures in the city are wreaking havoc with traffic, but she said Utah residents feel safe and are thrilled to be hosting the Games.
"Everyday, I see probably a dozen National Guard [soldiers] just standing on the street corners. We have to go through metal detectors. We have to be stopped. We have to show our IDs. We definitely feel the presence here, and I feel safe. I don't know about anybody else, but me, personally, I feel safe. And I think that they're doing everything that they can do."
Security issues aside, the athletes in Salt Lake City will face one of the toughest natural hurdles in recent Olympic history: altitude. The Utah capital features the highest Olympic venues since the 1960 Winter Games in nearby Squaw Valley, California.
Experts say that although high altitudes can affect an athlete's performance, most have trained specifically for such conditions. And they say the thin air, which reduces resistance, could result in new world records, especially in sports such as speed skating.
The highest venue is the 2,800-meter start of the men's downhill. The biathlon course, at more than 1,700 meters, is the highest in the world of its kind. And the two ice hockey venues -- each at around 1,300 meters -- should be a tough test for the players.
Ice hockey will be a major focus of the Games. The Czech Republic is looking to defend the gold medal it won in a battle with rival Russia at the last games in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Since that victory, the Czechs have dominated international hockey, winning three straight world titles.
Star Czech forward Jaromir Jagr still wears number 68 in memory of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by mostly Russian Warsaw Pact forces in 1968. Of the 14 teams in the hockey tournament, the Czechs and five others -- Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and the U.S. -- will skip the first phase of play and will start in an eight-team medal round by virtue of their performances in 1998.
It is not certain the Czechs will meet Russia, which begins play in a different group, but they will face Canada on 15 February in a battle that will pit Jagr against his former Pittsburgh Penguin teammate Mario Lemieux, who is making his Olympic debut.
The hockey favorites include the Czechs, Russia, and Canada. But commentators are warning not to count out the Americans. The U.S. has taken gold each of the last two times it has hosted the Winter Games -- in 1960 in Squaw Valley and 1980 in Lake Placid, New York, where a rag-tag bunch of amateurs improbably beat the mighty Soviets in a famous Cold War battle.
Then, as now, politics was never far from the podium.