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Flag of rings will fly high with Utah pride

Perhaps never in Utah's history has a simple piece of cloth come as close to becoming a living, breathing entity, celebrated and feted like a conquering hero, as was the Olympic flag Monday.

Encased in a carved wooden box safeguarded by Mayor Deedee Corradini, the flag touched down in Salt Lake City after an 8,760-mile journey from Nagano, Japan, where the 1998 Winter Games concluded Sunday.Residents attending ceremonies at the airport and the City-County Building cheered vigorously when Corradini allowed the flag to be briefly exposed to public view.

"Way to go, flag!" yelled a member of a high school jazz band providing atmosphere at the City Hall ceremony.

Corradini took official charge of the 10-by-8-foot flag at the Nagano closing ceremonies Sunday, waving it on a large pole.

She pumped iron for three weeks to prepare for the moment. "This thing is heavy!" she said.

The most visible of Olympic symbols - the Olympic torch - has a long way to go before it makes its way from Nagano to Salt Lake City. Figuratively, however, the torch has been passed already.

"Nagano is behind us - it's now Salt Lake City's turn," said Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Frank Joklik.

On Monday, Delta Air Lines rolled out a new MD-11 three-engine aircraft to fly nearly 200 people to Los Angeles to pick up Corradini, Joklik and others and bring them and the Olympic flag back to Salt Lake City.

Among those making the trip to Los Angeles were Lt. Gov. Olene Walker, several former Olympic participants, county commissioners from those areas where events will be held in 2002 and many young Olympic ambassadors who won the trip by submitting an essay on the Olympic movement.

At Los Angeles International Airport, Delta hosted a reception for the Utah contingent returning from Nagano.

Once the group arrived, total chaos erupted in the reception area. Eric Bergoust, gold medal winner in freestyle skiing, and Shelley Looney, a member of the gold-medal-winning women's hockey team, were mobbed by autograph seekers and those wanting to take pictures.

Marvin Melville, a member of the U.S. Olympic ski team in 1956 and 1960 in the downhill, said having the Olympics in the Salt Lake area is long overdue and Utahns need to do the best job they can in hosting the world.

Corradini and Joklik were interviewed at length by the media and the former Olympic participants signed autographs and were interviewed. Following the two-hour reception it was more food on the airplane. On the trip back to Utah, each person on the aircraft had a chance for an up-close look at the Olympic flag folded in its case.

Close to 2,000 residents welcomed Joklik, Corradini, other dignitaries, and the flag at the cavernous Delta Airlines hanger at the Salt Lake International Airport Monday afternoon. About 100 residents braved the rain for the subsequent City Hall ceremony.

Bergoust and Looney joined the celebrations and pronounced themselves impressed with Salt Lake City.

"The welcome is unbelievable," Looney said.

At the airport, officers of the Air National Guard carefully carried the flag off the chartered MD-11 airplane, which had been freshly bathed by fire trucks spurting red, white and blue streams of water over the runway. They then spread and displayed the flag on the makeshift rostrum while dignitaries speechified.

"This is great," said one young man shortly after elbowing himself into a spot where he could see better. "This is really cool. I didn't expect to get as excited as I am."

Corradini did not allow the flag to be spread at the City Hall ceremony, but she opened the box and displayed the folded fabric resting inside.

Allow us to be frank. If you weren't at either celebration, and you want to see the flag anytime soon, this one word accurately describes your situation:

Tough.

While a SLOC flag Monday was raised and now flies in front of City Hall, and while a replica of the Olympic flag will be displayed inside the building alongside the Paralympic flag when the latter arrives in March, the real Olympic flag will be consigned to a vault until it again changes hands after the 2002 Winter Games.

At 46 years old, the flag is fragile, historically significant, and very valuable.

White, silk, with the five multi-colored Olympic rings embroidered on, the flag was originally donated to the International Olympic Committee in Oslo in 1952, earning it the moniker the "Oslo" flag. It is a replica of the first modern Olympic flag which Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games, presented to the Paris Congress in 1914 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the International Olympic Committee.

Two Olympic flags now exist, one for the summer, and one for the winter games.

While the enthusiasm of residents attending the ceremonies could not be questioned, the arithmetic skills of some could perhaps use work. One group waved the following sign at the airport:

"Salt Lake in 2001."