SALT LAKE CITY – The battle for the soul of the Winter Olympics is now officially on. So far, America is one tattered flag ahead.
Before a single chant of "USA, USA" rang out through the Wasatch Mountains, international Olympic officials managed to botch their first attempt to quash what seems inevitable — that these will be America's Games.
Behind closed doors they tried to keep the very symbol of American patriotic fervor from being carried into the opening ceremony, fearful perhaps that the flag from the World Trade Center would set the emotional tone for these games.
They were right. It will.
And, despite its status as the exalted ruler of the Olympic world, the International Olympic Committee is powerless to stop it.
Americans will cry together Friday night when a handful of American athletes carry into the Olympic stadium the flag found torn and buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Then, for the next 17 days, they will cheer as never before on the ski slopes and inside the arenas as America turns these games into its own.
That won't sit well with the European-based IOC, which takes particular pride in the fact it's not controlled by Americans even though it is funded primarily by U.S. television and sponsorship money.
Nor will it sit well with the international press, which saw the incessant "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy" cheer in Sydney as charming but isn't likely to think the same about "USA, USA."
"America has a great ego, but the games are not America's games," said Gianni Merlo, who heads Olympic coverage for Italy's La Gazzetta Dello Sport. "Perhaps with these games America will begin to understand that it's only a part of humankind."
Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney understands well how the world views America. He's forced to walk a tightrope while trying to balance the needs of Americans against the Olympic movement.
In doing so, Romney has spent countless hours trying to reassure other countries that Americans mean no harm. He did it again Wednesday, at a news conference where IOC officials tried to pretend this was all just a simple misunderstanding.
"Perhaps our cheering at times seems overbearing," Romney said. "That `USA, USA' gets kind of loud in the ears of some."
Try telling that to the family in Park City with the giant "USA" painted in red, white and blue on their house that is visible to athletes and fans on their way to the bobsledding, ski jumping and freestyle skiing at Olympic Park.
And try telling it to the thousands of flag-waving fans who have lined the route of the Olympic torch as it makes its way toward Salt Lake City.
None of that seemed to sink in with Olympic officials who at first rejected a request to bring the torn, ground zero flag into the stadium with the American delegation.
The IOC didn't seem to recognize just how much that flag means to Americans, Olympic protocol notwithstanding. And it wasn't just the Europeans. American IOC member Anita DeFrantz leapt to the defense of her IOC colleagues without even comprehending the cause.
"Every country in the IOC has issues," DeFrantz said before the IOC finally caved in Wednesday. "As Americans, we have to understand it's a world event and also that we are a guest even though we are the host nation."
In other times, the IOC might have simply let its ruling stand. But, after Romney made a rare break in protocol by issuing a statement late Tuesday that the flag should be carried at the ceremony, top IOC leaders began realizing how bad they were beginning to look.
That led to a hastily called, two-hour late-night meeting Tuesday between Romney, new IOC president Jacques Rogge and some other top Olympic officials. It was Rogge himself who finally suggested that American athletes be allowed to bring the flag in separately from the team entrance.
It was enough of a concession for the IOC to save some face. It wasn't enough to change the face of America's Games.
"This is American heroes, American victims, the American flag, the national anthem," said Francois Carrard, the Swiss director general of the IOC. "The heroes are American and we think the athletes who carry the flag should be, too. This is a very dignified moment for us, but we are in America, we are not interfering."
Extraordinary words from the IOC. But, as Americans will show again over the next 2 weeks, these are extraordinary times.