As a famous American once said: "There they go again." The USA Olympic team has been in town on shore leave for less than 48 hours, but some of the athletes' behavior already has drawn lousy reviews.
In fact, the Yanks didn't even make it through the first lap of the Games without drawing a complaint. When the U.S. team entered the Olympic stadium for Saturday's opening ceremonies, they seemed more concerned with getting some face time on NBC than being ambassadors for their nation. Members of the International Olympic Committee, according to one report, were not amused.You could see why. Athletes from 159 other countries walked into the Olympic stadium in neat lines, dressed uniformly, waving at the stadium crowd. If they wore hats, the teams doffed them. The Mexican team did some rhythmic clapping. The Japanese team waved cherry blossoms.
Then came the 612-member U.S. delegation, which didn't seem to know whether it was an Olympic team or a roving block party with a beer keg. There were no neat lines. A few athletes wore Mickey Mouse ears. Others wore oversize, novelty sunglases. Others carried banners that said, "Hi Mom." When they saw television cameras, they rushed off the track to wave at the magic lenses.
Within moments, other countries were swallowed up. The small and dignified group of athletes from Bahrain - who were marching behind the U.S. athletes, or trying to - found themselves surrounded and engulfed by Americans. Back home in Bahrain, all the moms must have wondered what happened to their kids.
"I was very disappointed," one IOC member from the United States, Anita DeFrantz, told a Chicago Tribune reporter. "I'm sure they were told how to behave. But they were too busy trying to get on TV."
Of course they were. All in all, it was the sort of goofy behavior that wouldn't have raised half an eyebrow if it had occurred at an average American college football game. But this is not Oklahoma-Texas. It is not even Sacramento State-Cal Poly. It is the Olympics. And while the Games' protocol can be downright silly at times, walking in one orderly group around one stadium running track doesn't seem too much to ask.
Besides, that's not the only issue. Americans are guests here in a foreign country. And in this particular foreign country, South Korea, reserved behavior is the norm.
You can tell that by the way crowds respond here. There is very little screaming. There is much polite applause. Before the ceremonies began Saturday morning, the stadium was wierdly silent. Then at 10:30 a.m., local time, the scoreboard lit up, and a ruffle of applause filled the stadium. When the Americans began hot-dogging it around the track, there were expressions of puzzlement.
It is the same way at other Olympic venues. Most of the shouting is from foreigners. Bela Karolyi, who coaches some of the U.S. gymnasts, predicted last week that performances would suffer here because most Western athletes are used to more enthusiastic spectators. Not in South Korea. Everything is orderly. Everything is precise.
Until the United States comes along. Here we are, marching into the midst of a four-hour tribute to Korean culture, behaving like party animals on parade. They aren't in Kansas anymore - or Disneyland or Fort Lauderdale - but they don't seem to realize it. Either that, or someone forgot to remind them.
The latter possibility is quite likely, considering the short shrift given the issue by Robert Helmick, the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. It's a part-time job. In his full-time job, Helmick is an attorney from Des Moines who has the narrow perspective of ... well, an attorney from Des Moines.
At the Winter Games in Calgary, last February, the U.S. ice hockey and speed-skating teams set new records for sniveling and finger-pointing. Bob said nothing. Now, this happens. And guess what Bob said?
"I thought what happened was good American youthful enthusiasm," Helmick said at a news conference. "It only shows good spirit. I know that our athletes mingled on the field with those from other countries. I don't think anyone was offended. If any of our athletes created problems, I would like to know about it."
Whoa there, fella. Those who were in the staging area outside the stadium, a large field where the teams assembled, have a different opinion. For a few moments, they were even fearful that the U.S. team might not get organized enough to walk inside together.
"It was chaos," said one U.S. athlete.
The Koreans spent $3 billion putting together these Games, overcoming all kinds of obstacles. The least they deserve is a little courtesy. True, no gaping international wounds were inflicted by the United States' puckish display. But think about it. We spend millions of dollars putting together a team to compete here, then can't even give the athletes a ten-cent course in how to respect other countries' cultures. That's no way to run a show.