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Sunday, August 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By The Associated Press
ATHENS Retiring soccer star Mia Hamm was elected by her fellow U.S. athletes to carry the nation's flag in tonight's closing ceremony, as the torch is passed to Beijing amid protests already beginning to form.
Hamm won her second Olympic gold medal last week when the U.S. team beat Brazil in Thursday's final. She also was part of the 1996 gold-medal team and the 2000 silver-medal team.
Hamm, 32, is leaving the game after a 17-year career in which she scored a world-record 153 goals and helped the United States win two World Cups. She will play her final games in a U.S. uniform this fall during a celebration tour of exhibition games.
"This is emotional, and I'm truly speechless," Hamm said. "I was expecting to be a follower ... just to go wherever I was pointed, and now I'm carrying the flag. It's a tremendous honor, and I thank my fellow Olympians for thinking of me."
Hamm is the first soccer player chosen to carry the American flag at an Olympics.
The last four hours of the Olympics will be dedicated to the closing ceremony at the Olympic Stadium, an extravaganza promising an experience unseen since, well, the over-the-top opening ceremony.
"It will be like an invitation to eat, drink, dance and sing with us the Greek way," said Dimitri Papaioannou, conceptual creator for the gala.
That explains the 2,100 volunteers performing traditional folk dances on the stadium floor, which at another point will sprout 45,000 strands of wheat. There will also be musical performances by well-known Greek singers.
At the closing ceremony, Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni will hand the Olympic flag to officials from Beijing, host of the 2008 Games. The moment will then set off the first protest of the next Olympics: Chinese dissidents and Tibetan human rights groups want spectators to withhold any applause during the exchange.
"Lots of people are still suffering under the current situation. We came to Athens to launch our campaign to say to the world that the decision to have the games in China must be rethought," said Wangpo Tethong, spokesman of the International Tibet Support Network.
Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Chinese organizing committee, acknowledged that not everything is ideal in his country.
"Of course we have strong points and we have weaknesses. The weaknesses have to be improved. That is normal," he said.
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