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Last Word Torn by pre-Games controversy, the 9/11 flag held together last night's ceremony

On Thursday, Jacques Rogge, the president of the International
Olympic Committee, explained that an Afghan delegation would not
be permitted to march in last night's parade of athletes in part
because "the opening ceremonies of the Games should not be a
place for symbols. It is a place for the best athletes in the
world." This, coming just minutes after he had eloquently
defended the presence of the most potent symbol in today's
frightened new world--the American flag pulled from the wreckage
of the World Trade Center--was jarring, but what could Rogge
say? Invested with the memory of the dead and with the emotional
might of millions, the 9/11 flag carries a power that no flame,
rings or medal count can match.

Indeed, by the time the 2002 Winter Games opened last night in
Salt Lake City, the flag had become the event's biggest
personality, trumping Michelle Kwan and Picabo Street, the
Mormon Church and even President George W. Bush. Columnists
argued over the flag--Should it be carried in by an athlete?
Should it fly overhead?--even after Thursday's compromise
decided that it would be carried into Rice-Eccles Stadium
surrounded by an honor guard of eight members of the U.S. team.
Europeans and global-minded Americans worried that the flag's
presence would inspire a jingoistic frenzy of red-white-and-blue
obnoxiousness, and some, like the Dutch speed skaters who
declined even to attend the ceremonies because they were afraid
of catching cold, could never understand how a piece of cloth
could matter so much to someone like U.S. short-track speed
skater Amy Peterson. "It's part of each and every American now,"
said Peterson, who carried the official U.S. flag in the
athletes' parade.

Presented and taken the proper way, though, the 9/11 flag was
never a threat to whatever the Olympic ideal purports to be. No,
the 9/11 flag flew at a structure called the World Trade Center,
and 80 nations were represented in the smoking rubble of that
horrific morning. If the Olympic movement is about nations coming
together in peace, well, many peaceful people came together and
died that day--and the 9/11 flag just happened to be the one
flying above them then.

"That flag doesn't just represent the United States," said U.S.
luger Mark Grimmette, a member of the honor guard, "it
represents all the people in the World Trade Center that day."

When the 9/11 flag finally came into the stadium, no one knew
whether the crowd would cheer or stand silent; it was the
night's one unchoreographed moment. The crowd stood quietly, the
only sound a helicopter beating overhead as a light snow drifted
down from the sky. This was not the kind of symbol Rogge had any
reason to fear.

There will be plenty of moments in these Games to gag on
patriotism run amok. There will be plenty of attempts by agents
and athletes to cynically milk the moment and plenty of
thumb-sucking pronouncements about the American Dream by NBC.
But despite all the hype, last night's march of the 9/11 flag
was a moment of purity. Too many people care too deeply, still,
for it to be mistaken for anything else. --S.L. Price

COLOR PHOTO: JIM BOURG/REUTERS An eight-athlete honor guard bore in the flag.