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Hoisting Flags Without Raising Controversy

In the eyes of the world, all the Southern hospitality Georgians can muster might not atone for a few bad breaches of protocol. Maybe the person most acutely aware of this is Carter Parsley, the cultured woman who works for Atlanta's organizing committee as "Assistant Program Manager, Victory Ceremonies."

Ms. Parsley and her small staff have the monumental task of seeing to it that the national anthems and flags of all 197 participating countries are in hand.

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"We have 273 victory ceremonies," Parsley says from her office deep in the heart of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games headquarters. "If we do 272 perfectly and one goes awry, that will be remembered."

Atlantans realize, of course, that many outsiders are skeptical of the city's sophistication. Doubts were perhaps unfairly raised several years ago during an Atlanta-Toronto World Series, when a grounds-crew member inadvertently raised the Canadian flag with the maple leaf upside down. Some seemed quick to indict the whole city.

Part of Parsley's job is over, since each country has now been welcomed to the Athletes Village at Georgia Tech University in the days leading up to tonight's Opening Ceremony in Atlanta's Olympic Stadium. "Many of these anthems are played only once, at the team welcome ceremony," says Parsley, "but once is all-important because [to athletes] that's their moment."

Beyond that, national anthems are reserved for gold-medal winners during the victory ceremonies. The vast majority of competing countries cannot anticipate this happening. Parsley has insisted that every prerecorded anthem be ready at each sports venue. "I've sort of prided myself on treating every one of these anthems as gold medal possibilities," she says. "Sometimes I'd talk to these embassies and they'd say, 'We're not going to win a gold medal,' and I'd say, 'I don't care. I'm giving everybody equal treatment.' "

The desirability of thorough planning and readiness was underlined at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where the women's figure skating awards ceremony had to be delayed while Olympic staffers searched for the Ukrainian national anthem of winner Oksana Baiul.

Today's fast-changing geopolitical environment makes it difficult to keep abreast of all the latest flags and anthems.

"There should be an archive that's updated," Parsley says. "In a way, each [successive] Olympic Games must reinvent the wheel," beginning the flag and anthem verification process anew.

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This is tedious work, but an ideal assignment, Parsley says, for someone of her interests and background. She has traveled widely and lived in Hong Kong for seven years before returning to the US and Atlanta. While in Hong Kong, she worked with the Asian Youth Orchestra, which she says was like "a miniature Olympic family, but in music."

The anthem verification process began in earnest in 1994, when the Association for National Olympic Committees held a conference in Atlanta.

"We had this booth," Parsley recalls, "where representatives of these committees came and sat down and talked about their flags, about how they should be raised in both a vertical and horizontal position. We had about 90 percent of national anthems and they also listened to recordings of these and approved them or said, 'No, there's a new anthem or the tempo is not correct.' "

"We met with 165 countries at that meeting. Mostly they loved the versions we were offering and they signed a document approving them."

But the process didn't end there. Some 60 countries have anthems that exceed the 75-second time slot allotted them by the Atlanta Olympic organizers and the International Olympic Committee. That the Star-Spangled Banner runs about 75 seconds, Parsley says, is a sheer coincidence, although a convenient one.

Paring down longer anthems, some of which run to four minutes or more, was tedious, painstaking work, made a bit easier with today's advanced digital editing equipment. "We tried to do it as best we could musically, rather than just play 75 seconds and chop," says Parsley, who played every abbreviated anthem over the telephone to embassies.

The recordings are numbered to avoid confusion between similar-sounding countries like Niger and Nigeria and Togo and Tonga.

Getting the flags right is just as challenging if not more so than straightening out the anthems, Parsley says. "There's no document or manual that shows the hanging of the flags in a vertical position, which uses less space and in some ways looks very dramatic," she says. "They don't follow the same pattern of just rotating down 90 degrees. We've contacted the National Olympic Committees and the embassies and sometime they didn't even agree."

Through much back-and-forth checking, however, all the loose ends have been ironed out. Still, in talking with Parsley, you get the feeling that she won't rest easy until the Centennial Olympics are buttoned down and the anthems and flags put away. If all goes as meticulously planned, she and her staff will surely take home the protocol gold medal.

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