SEOUL, South Korea — This is a story about the American flag, the Olympic spirit, and a very large gap between the two.

Did you watch the Opening Ceremonies Friday night? Then you probably saw sprinter Evelyn Ashford marching proudly in front of the U.S. team; she was carrying our flag. The TV announcers spoke of her great history in track, how this is her third Olympic Games, and how, at 31, she had received the ultimate honor — to be chosen by her peers as flag bearer.

She looked great.

It was very nice.

It was not true at all.

“She wasn’t the person the athletes wanted,” said distance runner Steve Scott, the co-captain of the U.S. track team. “The vote was very substantial and her name wasn’t even mentioned as a candidate.”

He’s right. Here is what happened: Each team is supposed to select one of its athletes as a potential flag bearer. Then all the team captains get together and select a winner. The track and field team made its selection late last week: Mac Wilkins, 37, a discus thrower who is also competing in his third Olympics.

The problem was, the track team managers failed to get Wilkins’ name to the selection committee in time. A stupid mistake. And because most track athletes were staying in Shiba, Japan, up to the start of the Games — trying to squeeze in a few extra days of training — the meeting of the captains took place here Thursday night without anyone from track and field attending.

In fact, a number of teams were missing — which is surprising, considering how important this is — and so, after hearing the designated nominees, the people who were running the meeting decided to open the floor to additional nominations. At that point, the rowing team — don’t ask me why — nominated Ashford.

And the voting began.

And eventually — although not one of her peers was present — Ashford won. Now, this would be strange enough. But the story doesn’t end here. When the track and field team found out, several members were furious — especially Scott. “Mac deserves it more than anybody else. Everybody wanted him. . . . He runs a series of track clinics that go throughout the country. He’s putting back into the sport, not just taking away. He has a great history of athletic performance.

“You could say the same thing about Evelyn’s performances, but I don’t think she’s given back as much as Mac . . . “

He’s being polite. To be honest, Ashford is not particularly popular among her track and field peers. She is often perceived as aloof, selfish and moody. Four years ago in Los Angeles — where she won a gold medal — she didn’t even bother to march in the Opening Ceremonies, saying she was focusing on her event, which was three days away.

This time she carried the flag.

“I think people vote for people they respect,” said a smiling Ashford during her press conference. “All I’ve gotten today are congratulations . .
. ”

Wilkins might argue with that. The discus thrower says he confronted Ashford about the dubious selection when he arrived from Japan. He claims she essentially told him “tough luck.”

Now let’s be clear on what’s at stake here. The history of carrying the flag for the U.S. team is a rich and honorable one. It is also something that, lately, has a great deal of commercial appeal. Your face is beamed around the world as representative of America. It is the type of thing you are bound to see in a TV commercial sooner or later.

This was certainly not wasted on Ashford.

“It’s a gift,” she said of being selected, and in more ways than one, she’s right. OK. There are a number of culprits here. The first is the track team. Why did the managers miss the deadline?

“We called them four or five times,” said Bonny Warner, the USOC athlete representative who conducted the meeting. “We can’t hold their hand. They knew about it.”

Second is the rower who nominated Ashford. It is not clear if he ever met the woman, or if he just knew about her from TV and magazines. “When he nominated her, he gave a 30-second speech on her behalf,” said Warner. “It was obvious he didn’t know her very well.”

(Calls to reach the rower were not returned.)

The third culprit is Ashford herself. Out of common courtesy, she should at least have acknowledged Wilkins’ nomination. She never mentioned it during her press conference and she bristled when a reporter asked her about it privately. Isn’t it a little strange when your own team doesn’t consider you, yet strangers vote you in? One has to wonder whether Ashford even planned on attending the Opening Ceremonies this time — before they stuck a flag in her hands.

There were dozens of athletes worthy of this honor. On the track team alone, names such as Edwin Moses, Jackie Joyner- Kersee, Francie Larrieu-Smith and Wilkins.

It is a first-class privilege that unfortunately was handled in a third-class fashion.

Didn’t you always think that the selection of flag bearer was a careful and thoughtful process? That the person chosen was not necessarily a gold medal winner, but someone whose spirit embodied the Olympic ideal? Apparently, the selection is more like a school board meeting in a local library. At least seven of the 29 team representatives were not present at the voting. Can you believe that?

Enough. It is done. Ashford may or may not be all the nasty things her peers claim, and Wilkins was not a shoe-in to be selected anyhow. Personally, I thought Jim Abbott, the one- handed baseball pitcher, would have been a perfect choice. And I bet he would have done it proud.

He wasn’t even nominated.

Strange story. Sad story. We can only hope that someday, a few months from now, we don’t see a shoe commercial that features a film clip of Ashford carrying the flag. Then again, maybe that’s what this whole thing has come down to after all. CUTLINE: Evelyn Ashford carries the flag during the Opening Ceremonies.

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