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Mettle, Not Medals, Is Goal of U.S. Team
Though U.S. and international Olympic officials say they are under no overt pressure, their corporate and financial backers say the athletes' image and behavior also are paramount among their concerns.
"If we do have athletes we are working with in any given country, we certainly wish them the best, but we choose athletes based on what they stand for, not whether they are going to win a gold medal or not," said Susan Stribling, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. "We support when the USOC and IOC take action to do things that preserve the sanctity of the Olympics and principles it stands for."
Not that athletes still don't feel pressured to succeed. The USOC continues to reward athletes who earn medals with financial bonuses, while many athletes have their own sponsorship arrangements, some of which have built-in performance bonuses.
Even so, officials can't ignore the commercial and political success of Michelle Kwan, a five-time world champion figure skater who produced some dramatic failures in her quest to win a gold medal at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics. Kwan parlayed her Olympic disappointment into opportunity in part because she showed what is now considered an almost historic graciousness in defeat. She became one of the wealthiest and most popular Winter Olympians.
Now retired from figure skating, Kwan is working as a public diplomacy envoy for the State Department.
"Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed for the United States Olympic Committee," Ueberroth said in 2006 on the day Kwan withdrew from the Turin Games because of an injury.
Before heading to China, athletes are required to attend one of four seminars in Washington, San Diego, Chicago or San Francisco involving 26 hours of instruction and discussion on such topics as making ethical choices, Olympic ideals and Chinese customs. Former Olympians, ethics experts, former lawmakers and Chinese cultural experts are among the speakers.
"They were really preaching clean competition and basically teaching us how to be well behaved," said weightlifter Casey Burgener, who attended a session in San Francisco in January. "That message was very clearly put across."
The USOC is so concerned about projecting a respectable image that the organization's top officials even labored over the athletes' uniforms. Concerned that outfits similar to the hip sweat suits and "poor-boy" caps worn at the Athens Opening Ceremonies might seem too informal, the officials signed a new contract with Polo Ralph Lauren and requested a classic slacks-and-jacket ensemble for men and women.
Performance-enhancing drug use has provided the most vexing problem for U.S. officials. They cringe at the thought of another drug scandal, such as the one that enveloped the U.S. track and field team leading to the 2004 Olympics and eventually led to Jones's admission last fall that she used drugs while winning at the 2000 Summer Games.
At a gathering of U.S. athletes in Chicago this week, U.S. track and field stars Allyson Felix and Brian Clay announced that they and other U.S. competitors had signed on to a burgeoning anti-doping program called Project Believe, which requires that they submit to nearly constant drug-testing in the hope of erasing doubts about whether they truly are drug-free.
"Anytime someone tests positive in track and field, it is a major blow. . . . It is even more of a blow to the athletes trying to do it the right way, because there are definitely things like sponsorship opportunities that [it] does take away," Clay said. "Our job is to compete to our best ability and to put our best foot forward and to try to represent U.S. track and field to the best of our ability . . . [and] to let people know this is the real U.S. team here."