Ragged World Trade Center flag in the spotlight at opening ceremony of Olympics

Thursday, February 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ About 3 billion television viewers will see a ragged rectangle of red, white and blue cloth carried at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, held aloft by athletes and real-life heroes.

After 24 hours of confusion, criticism and compromise, the International Olympic Committee reversed an earlier decision Wednesday and agreed to let the tattered flag from the World Trade Center be paraded around Rice-Eccles Stadium by an American honor guard.

Unless there is bad weather, the delicate flag _ the only one flying at the trade center in New York on the day of the towers collapsed _ will be hoisted next to the Olympic flame to serve as the official U.S. flag of the Winter Games.

``We had a great deal of discussion as to how to honor the flag as a symbol of the heroes of Sept. 11,'' said Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

``This is a way to honor the flag and honor the Olympians as a world event. We feel very connected with the athletes of the world.''

On Wednesday night, hundreds cheered as the flag arrived at Salt Lake City's airport.

``We're all proud that the flag will be part of the opening ceremony. The Olympics mean a lot to all people,'' said Port Authority police Sgt. Tony Scannella, who along with another officer brought the flag from New York.

The IOC originally said American athletes would not be allowed to carry the flag, but that it could be raised as the official U.S. flag at the opening ceremony. The IOC said the plan proposed by the U.S. Olympic Committee violated rules barring political acts during the ceremony.

That decision brought a barrage of criticism, from Romney saying he ``respectfully disagreed'' to more biting attacks on talk shows and in e-mails sent to the USOC.

After a two-hour meeting of Olympic officials, a compromise was reached just before midnight Tuesday.

``The ground zero flag will enter solemnly during the opening ceremony,'' IOC director general Francois Carrard said. ``It will be carried by an honor guard of American athletes and other heroes, policemen, firemen. This will be a solemn, dignified entrance.''

The 12-foot-by-8-foot flag was buried in rubble for three days and was torn in two places. Rescuers turned it over to a National Guard colonel for a ceremonial destruction, and the colonel gave the flag to the Port Authority Police Department. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owned the trade center.

The flag flew over a World Series game at Yankee Stadium last fall and was included in ceremonies at Sunday's Super Bowl.

Now, the Olympics gets its chance.

``I would be proud to see it flown and I would be proud to be a part of it,'' luge racer Adam Heidt said. ``I think most athletes would feel the way I do. It's a great way to honor those lost.''

The eight athletes who will carry the flag at the ceremony are being picked by the U.S. team and were to be announced Thursday.

In a vote Wednesday, U.S. athletes chose Amy Peterson, a three-time Olympic medalist in short-track speed skating, to be the traditional flag bearer who walks ahead of the U.S. team in the opening ceremony's parade of nations. She will carry a different U.S. flag.