-- In a series of unprecedented meetings, the U.S. Olympic Committee is urging prospective Olympians to mute their celebrations, refine their behavior and refrain from public criticism during the 2004 Games in Athens in an effort to avoid provoking anti-American passions.
USOC officials fear unruly, taunting or inappropriate behavior by U.S. athletes during the Aug. 13-29 Games in Greece would at best evoke embarrassing condemnation from other athletes or international officials and at worst retaliation from anti-American groups.
"We're not the favorite kid in the room as a country," USOC President Bill Martin said during a news conference Friday, part of the organization's four-day Media Summit in preparation for the Olympics. ". . . We're sensitive to the issue of flaunting and jingoism in its raw sense. This is going to be a tough Games for us as a country."
The USOC also plans for the first time to distribute a manual on local customs, culture and history of the host country to U.S. team members. Organization leaders hope U.S. athletes will display an interest in and knowledge of Greek and Olympic matters, helping to create international goodwill at a time Americans have been viewed with antagonism.
Former USOC chief communications manager Mike Moran has conducted the first of many planned seminars with the U.S. softball team and a handful of high-profile athletes, urging them to reconsider everything from the way they celebrate victories to comments they might make on the weather or the quality of food in the Olympic Village. He is scheduled to meet with other squads as they are assembled.
"We are saying, 'We want you to make an exaggerated personal effort in sportsmanship with respect to your competitors,' " Moran said. "We are asking them to reevaluate things they would normally do in terms of exuberance. . . . Could it be misinterpreted by a mixed international audience, including some who have an edge about us?
"Some of the stuff we do, gestures, pumping fists, high-fives . . . [they should] think about in terms of this unusual environment we're in."
Moran and current USOC chief communications officer Darryl Seibel last year conceived the idea for the meetings, which bare little resemblance to the traditional seminars held with Olympians on mundane media issues. Moran has reminded athletes of repercussions of boorish behavior among U.S. athletes in the past. At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, members of the U.S. men's 400-meter relay team incited censure after clowning and preening with the U.S. flag after their victory.
Last summer, U.S. sprinter Jon Drummond was thrown out of the track and field world championships in St. Denis, France, after protesting a false-start disqualification by lying down in the middle of the track.
Larry Brown, the U.S. men's Olympic team basketball coach, said Friday the men's team conducted itself with class during the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico but added that "it's a much different climate and atmosphere that we face now."
Added Brown, speaking on a conference call from Detroit: "We have a responsibility to act like gentlemen. Sport gives you a wonderful opportunity to help people understand this country's pretty neat, pretty special."
New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury, added Friday to the Olympic roster, said the men's basketball team would travel to Athens focused on winning the tournament.
"I don't think taunting or hanging on rims is something we're going to be thinking about," he said.
USOC officials said, however, they would not discourage athletes from wearing their Team USA uniforms outside of the venues and Olympic Village. In fact, as part of a sponsorship deal with Bank of America that the USOC announced this morning, U.S. athletes will be invited to utilize a family center in a part of Athens that sits outside of the protected Olympic zone. The center, which will give athletes and their families access to telephones, the Internet and complimentary food, will be situated in an area near the Acropolis called Plaka, located well outside of the Olympic Village.
Bank of America officials said magnetometers and other security precautions would be in place to ensure the athletes' safety at the Hometown Hopefuls Family Center. USOC CEO Jim Scherr also said the U.S. Embassy in Greece was notified of the center and that it has been placed on a designated security watch list, even though it falls outside of the Olympic security rim.
"We feel very comfortable that this destination and location is one our athletes will be able to reach safely," Scherr said.