Olympics Pose Political Challenges

Despite being placed on a high level of alert and creating the potential for political backlash against Americans, the Summer Olympic Games in Athens are more like a test, rather than a swan song, for the spirit of the international games.

"In spite of all of the problems, having the Olympics every four years provides a beacon of hope for international cooperation," said Perry Z. Binder, legal studies professor at Georgia State University and author of "The Wind Beneath My Wings," which he co-wrote with 1968 track and field Olympian Bob Beamon.

"The bond between the athletes and the pride of cooperation repeated in the Olympics seems to override the political climate all around," Binder said.

Even so, included in the billions of dollars spent by Greece and the United States to secure against terrorism, the U.S Olympic Committee (search) is taking unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of the athletes, coaches, families, sponsors and anyone else traveling to Greece, the birth place of the ancient athletic contests.

For example, American athletes have been issued gas masks for chemical and biological attacks, or tear gas. Americans working with the games in Athens (search) reportedly have been issued survival guides with suggestions for blending in and not being a target for anti-American backlash, most of which seems to have been brought on by the war in Iraq.

"What's changed, I think now, which makes it more political this year, is the fact that this is a Mediterranean country — the backdrop of Middle East violence isn't that far away," said Eric Zillmer, professor of psychology and director of athletics at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Combined with the post-9/11 climate, it is an intense brew of political paranoia and fear, said Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies (search) at the University of Western Ontario.

"These are the first [summer] games since 9/11, which makes them significant. There is almost a sense of impending doom, probably not rightly so," Wamsley said. "I would say, compared to Sydney [host city in 2000], the anti-Americanism is like night and day, all you have to do is look at the number of political demonstrations against the Iraq war at this time."

While Wamsley predicts the worst anti-American sentiment could manifest itself in the booing of the U.S athletes at particular events, the bar for even that behavior has been raised in the last year.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, during a men's soccer match between the U.S. and Mexico in February, the crowd not only booed the American players but chanted, "Usama, Usama," referring to the mastermind of the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.

But Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says athletes and Americans in Athens should be able to weather the storm, as so many had done in years' before.

"I can't remember when there wasn't some anti-Americanism [in the Olympics] — it ebbs and flows," he said. "It was intense in the late '60s and early '70s, there were all kinds of demonstrations and ugly incidents and then there was more of it in the 1980s for various reasons."

The 1968 games in Mexico City were the site of anti-Vietnam protests, as well as demonstrations within the U.S. team. Black American track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the National Anthem and were immediately suspended from the team by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"The Olympics are politicized and commercialized no matter how much people have tried to make it non-political," said Zillmer. "We've always had hot spots around the world. There were always complexities. The world has gotten very complicated, and sports have gotten more complicated with it."

The ancient Greek games were political, and when they were revived on the international stage in 1896, the Olympics have been used as a platform for politics, say historians.

In 1936, dictator Adolf Hitler used the games in Germany to advance what he believed was the Germans' racial superiority.

And in 1972, nine Israeli team members were killed with eight Arab terrorists slipped into the Olympic Village in Munich and took the teammates hostage, marking the bloodiest of the modern games yet.

The years during the Cold War saw a number of games in which countries withdrew or boycotted due to politics. By the 1980s, the countries behind the so-called "Iron Curtain" and their Communist allies like China and North Korea had become the villains at the games, driving the Olympic "arms race" against the West with the notorious medal count.

But after the fall of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, America has become the world's favorite team to hate, say experts.

"America is the only remaining superpower," noted Sabato. "There is a natural jealously among nations and much of it is directed at the most powerful country of all. It comes with the territory."

Rep. Jim Ryun (search), R-Kan., is a three-time Olympic athlete who ran in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 summer games, winning a Silver Medal in the 1500 meters in 1968. He says not much has changed over the years.

"I don't think things have changed a whole lot," he said. "Certainly, there has always been a certain amount of jealousy towards the United States because who we are and what we are and that has always been a factor."

While the Americans typically excel at the "medal count," athletes are being reminded more than ever to be gracious. This year, they have been tutored in how not to act inside and outside the games -- athletes are being told not to wave the flag too enthusiastically, get into political discussions outside the events or act too cocky.

The most repeated example of what not to do, experts say, is the memorable exhibition by four U.S runners, who after winning the 400 meter relay at the 2000 games, draped themselves in American flags, preened before cameras and joked around during the Star Spangled Banner, earning the title "the Ugly Americans" ever since.

But above all, Zillmer says the Olympics, and America's participation in them, must persevere despite difficult times.

"In America, the idea of freedom and sport is ingrained in our culture, we really believe if you put your mind to it you can succeed in sports," he said. "I think if we lose some of that if we do not pursue it."