2004 OLYMPICS; FEAR FACTOR the U.S.'S Former Enemy, the Soviet Union, Provided a Natural Olympic Rival; Today's Enemy, Terrorism, Adds Reluctance, Not Interest, to the Event

Article excerpt

Byline: ALEX ABRAMS and DAVID JOHNSON, The Times-Union

Nancy Hogshead-Makar knew who her rivals were when she trained for the 1984 Olympics.

"I hated the Russians. I was a Cold War, baby," said the Jacksonville swimmer who captured three gold medals and one silver at the Los Angeles Games, which the Soviet Union boycotted.

But even in the midst of the Cold War, with a lingering fear of nuclear war, Hogshead-Makar trained with Soviet swimmers at the University of Florida in 1979 and '81.

"I used to love them. We used to laugh at all these misconceptions," she said.

Fueled by the United States-Soviet Union rivalry, interest in the Olympic Games reached unforeseeable heights in the 1970s and '80s. Viewers watched as the world's two superpowers, continued their rivalry on the world's biggest sports stage.

But Americans have been without a rival since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leading to lessened interest in the Olympics. And today's heated political climate hasn't helped, either.

For the first time in an Olympic setting, American athletes and tourists are fearful of being the target of a terrorist attack while at the Athens Olympics, which begin today with soccer competition, and are the first Games held outside the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. Those concerns have led some fans and even athletes to stay home. Several NBA stars are among them.

"Certainly it's an awkward feeling that in a politically charged situation it might be American spectators or American athletes or American officials that are at risk," said NBC commentator Jim Lampley, who will be covering his 12th Olympics in Athens. "We are not used to seeing ourselves as targets on a world stage.

"But at this instance, that is the conclusion that most Americans draw; that in itself creates a unique atmosphere in contrast to any previous Olympics I can remember."

Relationship problems

Politics have always been a part of the Olympics, and the simple fact that Olympians carry their respective countries' flags during the opening ceremony and listen to their national anthems while on the medal podium lends the Games to being partisan.

"Any time you bring the countries of the world [together], you're going to have a political aspect," said Matt Corrigan, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Florida. "There's always going to be some political overtones."

The Summer Olympics, which captures the worldwide attention for about two weeks every four years, has been the setting for some of the most memorable political statements in recent history.

Black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos became U.S. civil-rights figures when they bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists while accepting the gold and bronze, respectively, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

A deadly political statement was made four years later at the Munich Olympics, when 11 Israeli coaches and athletes were killed during an attack by Palestinian terrorists trying to negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

Prior to al-Qaida's attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Munich was perhaps the most memorable act of terrorism. And even the Olympic torch relay, now a symbol of world peace and unity, originated from Adolf Hitler's Nazi propaganda machine for the 1936 Berlin Games, the last Olympics before World War II.

"[Trying to take politics out of the Olympics] is like saying you can take the water out of the ocean. It's the same thing," Lampley said.

Current climate

The Athens Olympics opens this week at a time when the world's political climate is highly charged and the threat of terrorism is real.

United States troops remain in Iraq, fending off uprisings after liberating the country from dictator Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, back on American soil, the threat of another al-Qaida attack on U. …