OLYMPICS, WINTER OLYMPICS 2002, OLYMPIC GAMES, SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH, AD LIB, GEORGE W. BUSH, OLYMPICS SPEECH, INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE, IOC, AXIS OF EVIL

With just nine little words, President Bush caused an international stir last week. No, it had nothing to do with the "axis of evil." But it does shed some light on why the United States and its allies don't always speak each other's political language.

The stir was over a last-minute change Bush made in his opening remarks at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. If he had stuck with the script that's been a tradition at these ceremonies for decades, Bush would have said: "I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games."

That sounded flat to the president. The subject-verb construction was weird (and this is a guy who knows weird subject-verb construction). Frankly, it does sound like it was probably translated from French--the first language of the Olympics. Mostly, the president thought that the circumstances called for something more than protocol. Perhaps more than ever, these games are about more than sport. And with his largest TV audience ever, Bush decided to send an international message. So just a couple hours before he walked into the Olympic stadium, he added a few words: "On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games."

To American ears, it rang true. But to some foreign visitors and members of the International Olympic Committee, who knew nothing about the changes to their beloved protocol, it was inappropriate spotlight stealing and yet another example of the United States usurping the world's games. There had already been a flap over how to incorporate the World Trade Center flag into the ceremonies. "I have heard a lot of people say that Bush 'hijacked' the Olympics," says one person close to the IOC.

The U.S. athletes didn't seem to feel hijacked. Before heading to the opening ceremonies, Bush had a reception for the competitors, who mingled with sports stars like Lance Armstrong and Cal Ripken Jr. (Several hardened White House reporters were eagerly seeking autographs.) "Not only do you represent the greatest nation on the face of the earth, you represent a spirit that is much bigger than evil and terror: you represent peace," Bush told the U.S. team. He then sat with them (another breach of protocol) briefly on the field and even talked to figure skater Sasha Cohen's mother by cell phone. "Do you know who this is? This is your president," he said to Galina Cohen. Several other athletes started thrusting their phones his way, but he declined and soon was whisked away by Secret Service agents dressed to blend in with the athletes.

For most Americans it was a kick. For some in international circles it was a kick in the teeth. The source close to the IOC says the committee will be reviewing the contracts for the upcoming games in Greece and Beijing to make sure that a world leader can't breach protocol like that again. "Bush ate Rogge's lunch," says the same source. Rogge is the IOC's new president, Jacques Rogge. The Belgian is trying to trim the notoriously bureaucratic and bloated organization. A former rugby player, Rogge is trying to keep the focus of the Games on the athletes. He's even sleeping on a cot in the athletes' village.

Rogge and Bush would probably get along. But there is a perception among some IOC members that Bush personifies the ugly American--brash and nationalistic. It's a stretch, but some IOC members put Bush's casting aside Olympic protocol into the same category as his refusing to sign international treaties. True, he has little interest in treaties that he sees as subjecting Americans to international law. And he hates flowery "diplobabble," as some of his aides like to call diplomatic language. His shoot-from-the-hip style doesn't always go over well abroad. The French foreign minister recently criticized Bush's "axis of evil" concept as "simplistic." (The French of course invented diplobabble.) When I asked one administration official for his response, he just chortled derisively, as if to say, "typical French." "That's what they said about Reagan's 'evil empire,' too," he said.

As Bush heads off on his second trip to Asia this weekend, he'll no doubt get an earful in South Korea, Japan and China about whether North Korea should or should not have been included in the "axis of evil." The flap over the opening ceremonies protocol speaks to the tricky balance Bush must find between speaking up for Americans and not putting off our international friends.