BARBARA FRITCHIE, rest easy. It looks like that old gray head will not be needed in Utah today after all.
As a result of intense debate and lobbying by U.S. Olympic organizers, the American flag that was flying over the World Trade Center before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 will have a prominent role in the opening of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Potentially far more prominent than appropriate, in fact.
The U.S. Olympic Committee had wanted American athletes to carry the flag in the opening ceremony tonight, when delegations of athletes from around the world parade into Rice-Eccles Stadium. It seemed, and still seems, like a reasonable idea; after all, that is when each delegation displays its nation's colors.
But this is no ordinary flag. Tattered and torn and (except for the number of stars) looking like a relic from a war fought long ago, what has come to be called the World Trade Center flag was rescued from the rubble after the collapse of the twin towers in New York.
It's an extraordinarily potent symbol, and one that would have provided every American with an extra surge of pride when carried into the stadium by members of the U.S. Olympic team.
But International Olympic Committee members nixed the idea because, in essence, they said it was a little too potent.
Members of the IOC felt the World Trade Center flag would have made a political statement, which is forbidden at the games. And they said it opened the door for other countries in the future to carry more blatantly nationalistic and political symbols at the ceremony.
That's nonsense. It's an American flag, and like any flag, it's purpose is to symbolize the nation it represents and to stir the patriotic emotions of that nation's citizens. This flag is particularly meaningful to many Americans, but that shouldn't disqualify it from being displayed, in the Olympic ceremony or elsewhere.
Oddly enough, though, the IOC agreed on Wednesday to a compromise measure, allowing an "honor guard" of "athletes, heroes and policemen" to accompany the flag into the stadium and hoist it as the official flag of the host country. If they wanted to downplay the political and nationalistic implications of bringing the ghost of Sept. 11 into the Games, this is hardly the way to do it.
It would have been far better to treat it as a particularly meaningful American flag amid all the other flags in the opening parade. No policemen, no heroes; just athletes at an athletic competition. That, after all, is what the Olympic spirit is all about.