With a public image already damaged by the war in Iraq and the growing crisis over the abuse of prisoners by U.S. forces in the Abu Ghraib (search) prison, American sports officials have advised athletes to curb their victory celebrations in Athens in August.

“We are not the favourite kid in the room as a country,” said Bill Martin, the president of the United States Olympic Committee (search) (USOC). “We are 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.”

In recent years the sight of U.S. track and field stars strutting around Olympic stadiums draped in the stars and stripes has become as much a part of the Games as the five rings and the flame.

At a meeting of the USOC in New York this weekend potential members of the 550-strong team were given a series of recommendations warning them to avoid overtly jingoistic behavior.

“We are now discussing proper conduct at the Games,” said Darryl Seibel, a spokesman for the USOC. “Given the current international climate, we want to make sure our athletes are well advised and know what they might face in Athens (search).

“That doesn’t mean they should not celebrate when they win, or wave the flag. But what it does mean is that they should act appropriately given the international situation.”

Mike Moran, a veteran former spokesman for USOC, has been retained as a consultant to advise the athletes. “We are saying, ‘We want you to make an exaggerated personal effort in sportsmanship with respect to your competitors,'” he said.

“We are asking them to re-evaluate 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.”

Four years ago at the Sydney Olympics the U.S. 100m men’s relay team were forced to apologise for their celebrations after winning the title. They strutted, one naked to the waist, draped in the stars and stripes in a manner that was widely considered to be arrogant.

The British Olympic Association said it had no plans to warn its athletes to subdue their celebrations.

“It’s up to every athlete how he or she wishes to celebrate their Olympic success,” said a spokesman. “There are no plans to issue any instructions. We are confident every athlete will celebrate in a responsible way.”