SALT LAKE CITY -- The 2002 Olympic Winter Games will open Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium amid predictions of fog and cold, fanfare and flag waving, and, perhaps, a few cautious glances at skies patrolled by military planes.
Friday's opening ceremony, to be performed in front of an audience that's expected to include President Bush, will look back to pay tribute to victims of the Sept. 11 tragedies and honor heroes who risked their lives, while also looking ahead to the athletic spectacle that will unfold over the next 17 days.
Central to the ceremony will be the entrance of the tattered U.S. flag found in the rubble of the World Trade Center after the towers were attacked. It will be carried by an honor guard of eight U.S. athletes and two policemen from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a gesture sure to spark an emotional response from spectators who have paid as much as $885 to sit in evening cold. However, the flag will not fly over the stadium because it was deemed too fragile to withstand harsh weather.
"This particular flag doesn't only represent the U.S. It represents all the victims at the World Trade Center," said luge competitor Mark Grimmette, one of the eight chosen to carry the symbolic flag.
Said short-track speedskater Amy Peterson, who will carry an intact U.S. flag as she precedes the U.S. team into the stadium for the traditional parade of nations: "It's part of each and every American now. It's part of who we are It should be there."
From the 211-athlete U.S. delegation to the one-person teams sent by Bermuda, Cameroon, Cyprus, Fiji, India, Kenya, Nepal, San Marino, South Africa, Tajikstan and Thailand, 77 nations will gather for the first Winter Games in the U.S. since 1980. The 2,531 athletes -- the largest group assembled for a Winter Games-will celebrate youth and vigor and the joy of competition. No matter that the festive air may seem incongruous against a background of police and soldiers safeguarding downtown streets and bomb-sniffing dogs nosing around venues.
"I think all athletes are very confident with the system that's in place," said U.S. cross-country skier Nina Kemppel, a four-time Olympian. "My biggest concern coming in here was that security was going to be claustrophobic and distracting from what we need to do. It really hasn't been that way. It's been very apparent, but it hasn't been distracting.
"It's like when I crawl into bed at night and get under my down comforter. It's the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling."
If the cold, hard steel of rifles slung over the shoulders of soldiers is meant to produce a warm, fuzzy feeling, these Games will generate a lot of heat.
The ratio of security personnel to athletes is four to one, and the security budget has reached about $310 million. That's more than three times the cost of security for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, which involved four times as many athletes.
The first test of the Olympic security net occurred Thursday after an unattended white plastic bag was spotted in a downtown parking structure, leading Salt Lake police to dispatch a bomb squad and evacuate two nearby buildings. Sgt. Craig Gleason, a police spokesman, said the bag contained red and white electrical wire and fuses which alone could not be used to construct an explosive device. However, authorities "blew it to smithereens," Gleason said.
Although the package was not a threat, he said the test was useful.
"We learned we can all play together," Gleason said of the multiple security layers that have been stitched together. "Let's face it. You can't throw a rock around here and not hit someone from a law enforcement agency."
There are no guarantees everything will go perfectly.
Transportation looms as a potential problem, especially moving spectators to ski events in Park City in bad weather. And a high-pressure weather system pressing a lid on cold air, auto emissions and other pollutants over the area has obscured the picture-postcard vista of the Wasatch Mountains.
But other than last-minute security sweeps of the Salt Lake Ice Center -- site of figure skating and short-track speedskating -- and applying the final brushstrokes to the curling target on the Ice Sheet at Ogden, Salt Lake City appears to be ready for its moment on the global stage. 'Certainly we have noticed the degree of preparation is excellent," said Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee. "It's like you have assembled resources, human and technical and others. The whole thing must start to work. We will see at the opening ceremony.
"Our main concern is that the athletes have the best conditions to compete, and I am convinced such is the case."
"We anticipate great competition," he added. "We believe the Games will have special significance after 11 September. It is a very strong signal, people coming together from different countries and ethnic origins The security arrangements are of the highest possible level, and we are very pleased with what the American authorities have put in place."
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All is in place for a record 78 events to be contested. Added to the Olympic program since the 1998 Nagano Games are women's bobsled, men's and women's cross-country sprint races, an individual sprint in nordic combined and a 1,500-meter race in short-track speedskating. In addition, the fields in curling and women's hockey have been expanded, skeleton has returned for the first time since 1948, and snowboarding's giant slalom event was transformed into a parallel giant slalom with racers competing side-by-side.
U.S. Olympic Committee officials have set a goal of winning 20 medals, seven more than the previous high total attained at the 1994 Lillehammer Games and matched four years later at Nagano. The international successes of skiers Kristina Koznick and Bode Miller, figure skater Michelle Kwan, short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, bobsled driver Todd Hays and others puts that goal firmly within the realm of possibility.
But will the desire to root, root, root for the home team create an uncomfortable environment for foreign athletes?
Rogge believes Americans will find a balance between pride and politeness.
"I have been at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the 1996 Atlanta Games and I really look forward to these Games," he said. "We want a warm, supporting public. Americans want fair play and I know Americans will also cheer for other athletes. I am not concerned for bias, jingoism or an excess of nationalism."
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