So much for Olympic truce: Russia-Georgia conflict casts pall over Beijing games

Aug. 12, 2008, 11:14 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) On Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium, the Olympic flame burns. In Georgia, buildings bombed by Russian warplanes burn.

So much for the hoped-for Olympic truce.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in the stadium when the Olympics opened last Friday. He may even have heard the message from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that was broadcast repeatedly on the two giant screens: "May the Olympic flame light the path for peace everywhere."

Seems not.

The next day, Putin was back in Russia, talking tough against Georgia. Instead of peace, the Olympics have been overshadowed by their war. The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, skipped the opening ceremonies entirely, sending his wife instead. Presumably, Saakashvili needed to oversee the offensive that Georgia had launched Thursday night, just hours before the games opened, to regain South Ossetia, a separatist Georgian province which has close ties to Russia. The Russian response: five days of air and land attacks.

For athletes in Beijing, it's been hard to enjoy their once-every-four-year, or once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience when they are worried that loved ones may be being bombed, shot at and killed back home. Georgian weightlifter Arsen Kasabiev lost an uncle, his team says.

"It's disturbing. It's really hard you know? All my family is over there," said archer Khatuna Lorig. She is proudly competing for the United States now as a naturalized American. But she was born in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Lorig calls her parents almost every day. "They are all alive and that's all that matters," she said.

As hard as it is, she tells herself to keep her mind on the job: No U.S. woman has won an individual archery medal since 1976.

"That's what my mum and dad want," she said. "You have to stay here with your mind. You can't really destroy yourself with things going on in the world."

She called the conflict "crazy" and said she hopes "we all find peace."

But then she said stop - no more questions.

"I would rather talk a little less about that because I'm kind of trying to concentrate on the archery and it's really sad to talk and it makes me really upset," she said.

Athletes and Olympic officials often say sports and politics shouldn't mix. But for Russia and Georgia, that's easier said than done. Georgia, a small U.S. ally, used to be a Soviet republic. Its athletes competed for the USSR from 1952-1988 and then, after the Soviet Union collapsed, in a unified team of former Russian satellites at the 1992 Barcelona games. Lorig was on that team.

Only at the 1996 Atlanta Games did Georgia get to go with its own squad. Lorig was on that team, too, and the one that went to Sydney four years later.

This time, Georgia came with 35 athletes, half of them wrestlers and judo competitors. Because of the fighting, they nearly returned home before the competitions in Beijing, but had a change of heart. The Olympic chief, Jacques Rogge, wrote them a letter of thanks for staying, saying it reflected "a respect of the Olympic values and is a sign of their strength."

But it's been tough.

Georgia opened an Olympic hospitality suite, the Georgian House, in a hotel room on Tuesday evening. Georgian wine and brandy were uncorked. But no one felt like partying. The mood was funereal.

"Very bad situation," the Georgian Olympic head, Gogi Topadze, said in broken English to one of his guests. "Our sportsmen, absolute demoralization."

On a white board, someone had written, "Stop Russian aggression in Georgia!"

Georgia has so far snagged a bronze, in women's 10-meter air pistol.

"Perhaps this is symbolic that Georgia won an Olympic medal in shooting," said Nana Alexandria, the Georgian House hostess and a chess grand master.

Russia has a far bigger squad of more than 460 competitors. But they have made a far slower start in Beijing that Russia's troops, with tanks and airstrikes, did in Georgia.

Russia had just nine medals as of Tuesday night. China and the United States, battling for supremacy at the top of the table, had more than twice that.

Perhaps Georgian and Russian leaders should follow the example of their athletes, who've kept things civil in Beijing despite the war, none more so than Nino Salukvadze and Natalia Paderina.

They competed in the air pistol event. Salukvadze got Georgia's bronze and Paderina, of Russia, got silver.

After they collected their medals, Salukvadze put her arm around Paderina and the two posed together for photographs.

Paderina than kissed Salukvadze on the cheek.