The wind off Whiteface Mountain whipped up a small gale, caught the big American flag in its grasp and tugged.

The guy carrying the Stars and Stripes, 5-foot-4 Scott Hamilton, the smallest man on the U.S. Winter Olympic team, held on tight and gasped, "If I start to fly away, will somebody grab me, please."

Hamilton, always pale with the pallor of a career indoor figure skater, was positively ghostly today at the Olympic opening ceremonies here.

As more than 100 U.S. athletes teased him and rooted for him, calling, "Get ready, Scott," and "Let's go get 'em, Scott," the 21-year-old from Rosemont, Pa., just murmured to himself. "I think I'm going to be sick."

Carrying the American flag into an Olympics is one of this nation's highest athletic honors. Decathlon champions like Rafer Johnson have done it in Summer Games, and folks with "gold medal" written on them have often gotten the distinction in winter, like Dianne Holum in '72.

By the harsh standards of medal-winning, Hamilton is an Olympic nobody -- just the fellow who finished a respectable third in the U.S. Olympic trials in men's singles.

So, why was Hamilton hanging on to Old Glory for all his 140 pounds worth today? Why was he saying, "I can't even describe my feelings. I didn't expect all this attention. I don't really understand it. But, gee, it's the neatest feeling. My dad is so proud."

Sometimes athletes are accused of seeing no deeper than the time of a race or the height of a jump. They fall for the junk about the person who finishes first being a "winner," and the person who doesn't being a "loser."

The U.S. Olympic team didn't elect Hamilton as its flag bearer because he is a winner. His chances for a medal are close to nil. They chose him for all the qualities that can't be measured -- his gentle personality, his friendliness and his guts.

From the time Hamilton was 5 years old until he was 9, he had Shwachman's disease, which he said was like cystic fibrosis. The odds said that Hamilton would be an invalid.

"When I was 9 years old, I started to do some figure skating as therapy," says Hamilton. "Instead of just helpig me a little, I think it cured me.

"Skating got my muscles moving again. It just started everything in me living again. I don't remember those years very well, but I know that figure skating turned me around and got me well."

Whatever factors formed Hamilton's character, he came out, in world champion Linda Fratianne's words, as "just the sweetest guy you could imagine."

Last week, each U.S. Olympic squad put forward one member, whom it considered special, for the honor of carrying the flag. Hamilton won by ballot of his teammates.

"They played a practical joke on me," says Hamilton. "I went to the movies to see 'Close Encounters,' and the whole team came to get me.

"(Ice dancer) Stacy Smith came up to me and said, 'Scott, how could you do a terrible thing like that. How could you disgrace us all?'" recalls Hamilton, chuckling.

"After she started, all the others started tearing me down saying, 'We just heard, Scott. You're been kicked out of the Olympic Games. How could you get yourself expelled? It reflects on all the rest of us.'"

Hamilton can laugh now, but he didn't then. "They kept beating around the bush and not saying what I had been kicked out for, but they really had me scared," says Hamilton. "They had me convinced that I had broken some rule and had been thrown out."

Then the other skaters broke down and told him the truth that they were bringing news of honor, not dishonor.

Hamilton's first act was to call his parents to make sure that every living relative was among the millions of viewers who watched him live on ABC-TV today. Then he started to worry.

First, all the athletes from 37 countries were kept standing in the sub-freezing cold outside the Olympic Village for an hour today as the Lake Placid Organizing Committee's inept bus system stood them up.

Then the apprehensive Hamilton was deposited in the snowfilled meadow behind the opening-ceremony stadium, which stands just across the road from John Brown's grave (he died waiting for an Olympic bus).

Finally, as he was strapped into his flag-bearing harness, the wind went crazy and Hamilton really got the jitters: "It's not really too heavy, but I sure hope I can guide."

Hamilton felt perfectly at home. That huge meadow was one large mass of fear and worry.

The director of the precision-marching 27th Lancers from Revere, Mass., was screaming at one baton twirler, "How come you are the only person facing in the wrong direction?"

The woman in charge of the official Olympic mascot (a raccoon) was in a tizzy, screaming at onlookers, "For god's sake, stop playing with the Olympic raccoon."

And 1st Sgt. Tom Johnson of the Army's sky-diving Golden Knights was worried that upper-air wind chills of minus-75 degrees would destroy his team's performance. When two Golden Knights missed their X-mark in the meadow by 50 yards on a practice jump, one Bolivian official said to another, "Those two must be Marines."

But as the moment for the lighting of the Olympic flame approached, everything fell in place.

The Golden Knights hit their marks from 10,000 feet, the thousands of balloons and doves flew up, and the raccoon escaped unharmed. Only one large banner, bearing the words "Lake Placid" and suspended by helium balloons, was lost. Its mooring string broke and the sign disappeared into the heavens.

All, went well for Hamilton, too.

"Just follow me," said Terrance Hanrahan, a Lake Placid native, resident and general contractor, who carried the U.S. placard in front of Hamilton.

As the joyful, yet chilly, procession started to move, Hanrahan turned and told Hamilton, "My folks were thinking about maybe getting a Betamax to get a recording of all this off TV. But it cost too much."

"Mine, too," said Hamilton. "I think they decided not to buy one either."

"That's all right," said Hanrahan as the crowd along the march began to cheer. "I think this is going to be hard to forget."

"Yeah," said the smallest man on the U.S. Olympic team, "I think so, too."