Patriotism is taking a back seat

Self interests winning out at Olympics

TURIN, Italy--

Bud Greenspan undoubtedly will spin it very eloquently when he documents the stories from the 2006 Winter Olympics. But somewhere between tragedy and triumph, there will be an underlying theme of individual interests conflicting with our precious "U-S-A" patriotic embrace.

So, are some chanting "me-me-me?"

Shani Davis' decision to opt out of the team pursuit in men's speedskating reflects the evolving conflict of individuals trying to juggle the responsibilities of representing their country while remaining loyal to themselves and sponsor interests.


By opting out to focus on his individual events, Davis likely cost the U.S. skaters a medal in a relay event in which they finished sixth.

"I've been skating since I was 6-years-old," Davis said. "And I'll be pretty upset if people got upset about my decisions and what I feel is best for me because all in all, I know what's best for me.

"And if I feel that not skating the pursuit will do me better for the 1,000 meters, then I'm going to do it. I worked to get here. None of my teammates helped me get to where I am. I worked hard and I got myself here."

End of innocence

It is Davis' prerogative to do what he wants. But the situation certainly skews a different family portrait than in previous Olympics. The end of the innocence likely came with a U.S. hockey victory against the Soviet Union in 1980 in Lake Placid.

The lines of pure patriotism have blurred considerably since then.

Basketball's Dream Team covered its Champion uniform logo with tape to avoid a commercial plug for a company that wasn't sponsoring them as individuals in 1992. Sprinter Michael Johnson unveiled gold shoes for Nike before the 400-meter race in the 1996 Games. The U.S. freestyle ski team has uniforms designed by Tommy Hilfiger in addition to its standard issue uniforms supplied by the United States Olympic Committee here.

Plenty of company


These Olympics have brought us Davis, a kid from Chicago with a chippy attitude, Bode Miller, the irreverent wild child of the slopes, and Jeremy Bloom, a moguls skier who kept repeating that his ultimate athletic goal would be to win a Super Bowl title rather than an Olympic medal.

Half of his wish came true after he finished sixth in his event, leaving him free and clear to go to the NFL Combine next week. He has ambitions of playing in the league as a wide receiver.

"One thing I'm very happy about is that I'm healthy for the combine," he said after his competition Wednesday evening.

Miller's attitude also smacked of disinterest, saying going in that he didn't care much for these Games. His lack of success on the slopes reflects as much. But his sound bites continue to feed the media frenzy that draws in his sponsors that include Visa.

"With Bode we've known all along that he's very independent and a free spirit," said Michael Lynch, senior vice president, event and sponsorship marketing for Visa USA.

"Sometimes it's like a box of chocolate. You're not sure what you're going to get from Bode but his ambition is to be best skier in the world, and that's the ultimate thing, desire."

As a major sponsor on different levels -- including the USOC, national governing boards of Olympic sports, and 16 individual athletes competing in these Olympics, Visa has found a nice niche to market its product across the board and avoid conflicting agendas.

A Dream Team thing


It's easy enough to connect the dots of disinterest and see when egos started to trump patriotism. The 1992 Olympics marked the debut of the Dream Team concept that allowed NBA players--athletes who didn't consider representing their country the pinnacle of their careers -- into the Summer Games. A check of recent Dream Team rosters -- and a consolation prize of bronze in Athens in the summer of '04 -- reflects continued apathy.

As true amateurs disappear in other sports, athletes now lean on sponsors to survive, and there is no longer a need to live on the fringe of food stamps to remain competitive internationally.

Green becomes the primary color, not red, white and blue.

"For me, it's a chance to represent myself as an athlete, and above all else that's what the Olympics presents," Seth Wescott, who won a medal for snowboard- cross Thursday, said moments after the Star Spangled Banner was played in his honor at Piazza Castello.

"It's the biggest opportunity to go out and show the world what you have as an athlete. On the other side of it, you're representing your country and I'm proud to be here representing my home state Maine. It's an honor."

Wescott is a Visa man himself; Nike, too. It is a partnership that both brands should welcome, given Wescott's easygoing nature that suits him well for corporate meet-and-greets and media opportunities.

It is the Olympics, the one shot for a marketing moment that will resonate beyond the usual 15-minute window of fame for Olympians.

Athletes like Davis should know one of the basic concepts of any game:

You can't win if you don't play.

George Diaz writes for the Orlando Sentinel. His column is distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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