Nation & World

U.S. team picks Georgian to lead them in closing ceremony

While U.S. athletes have stayed silent about politics during these Olympic Games, their actions have spoken volumes.

First came the decision by U.S. team captains to pick runner Lopez Lomong, who was a Sudanese war refugee, to lead the U.S. delegation into the Aug. 8 opening ceremony as the team's flag bearer.

Many interpreted Lomong's selection as a dig at the Chinese government's support of Sudan, which has armed militias that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the country's Darfur region.

On Friday night, the U.S. team entered the political fray again by choosing archer Khatuna Lorig, who was born in what is now the country of Georgia, to be the U.S. flag bearer in Sunday's closing ceremony.

With Georgia recently fighting a mismatched war against Russian troops in the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia, many saw Lorig's selection as a show of support by U.S. athletes for the besieged Georgians.

Since breaking from the former Soviet Union, Georgia has moved closer to the United States and other Western powers while angering Russian leaders.

Lorig, however, played down the politics during a Saturday interview with McClatchy, saying her fellow U.S. athletes didn't pick her to score geopolitical points.

"It's more that they feel that I'm American, it doesn't matter where I was born," the 34-year-old West Hollywood, Calif., resident said. "I'm truly very proud to be an American and most definitely very proud to be on the U.S. team."

The conflict in her home country, however, did weigh on her mind as she competed Aug. 12 and 14, advancing to the archery quarterfinals before losing to world record holder Yun Ok-Hee of South Korea.

Loris said her parents fled their home in the Georgian city of Gori when Russian troops invaded earlier this month and are still staying with her brother in the capital of Tbilisi. While competing, Lorig had called to make sure her parents were all right and was reassured after talking to her mother.

Lorig later learned that her mother had spared her the worst details about the destruction in Gori so that she wouldn't be too upset to compete. The family's farm house was spared the destruction, but neighboring buildings weren't, Lorig said.

The archer expressed strong support for beleaguered Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who she said had done much to improve the lives of ordinary Georgians.

"I feel sad and I feel very upset," Lorig said. "But I know Georgia has very good relations with other countries and the world is not blind and will not just stand by."

Archery team captain Victor Wunderle said he nominated Lorig to be U.S. flag bearer in recognition of the respect her fellow athletes held her in. Lorig had won the Olympic bronze medal in 1992 as part of a team representing countries of the former Soviet Union and has helped coach many of her fellow U.S. archers.

"This isn't about the governments in the world," Lorig said. "This isn't about international politics. Khatuna was elected by her peers, elected by other athletes. Khatuna has a great story."

Lorig has competed on three Olympic national teams - the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union in 1992, the Georgian delegations of 1996 and 2000 and this year's U.S. team. Lorig moved to New Jersey from her native country in 1996 but could only join the U.S. team after winning American citizenship in May 2005.

Lorig said one of the first things she did after becoming a citizen was join the U.S. Olympic squad.

"I love this country," Lorig said. "It's the number one country in the world, and I'm holding its flag."

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