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Scott Russell - Thursday Jan. 16, 2014 16:59

The 5 W’s of a Canadian flag-bearer

Honoured athlete must reflect winning attitude

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Catriona Le May Doan was Canada’s flag-bearer at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games. (Laurent Rebours/Associated Press)

Next Thursday in the nation’s capital someone will be chosen to be Canada’s most visible ambassador for 2014.

It is, after all, an Olympic year and that means carrying the flag into the opening ceremony of the Games in Russia is equivalent to landing the greatest gig in the land. 

It’s a chance for a high performance athlete, who has most likely excelled in relative obscurity, to fashion a little Maple Leaf magic.

For some it’s seen as the opportunity of a lifetime. For others it heralds a massive burden of expectation to shoulder. 

Over the years a number of athletes have relished the knowledge that they are the chosen one. The right to lead their country onto the most grandiose stage in the world has been, for the vast majority, a coveted jewel. A few others have declined to bear the flag, choosing to focus on their performance in the knowledge that with the modern Olympics there is little room for distraction or performance error.

Bearing the flag is not for everyone. It’s for someone very special and eminently qualified.

The thing is, we the fans love to speculate on who it will be. It’s because in that moment the flag-bearer will, symbolically at the very least, represent all the citizens of the country. By extension the aspirations of all Canadian athletes and their followers ride with the flag-bearer in that fleeting few minutes in the Olympic stadium.

So let’s have some fun with this and let the prognosticating begin. 

Let’s not focus on the name of the recipient, but rather on the reasons why he or she will be selected to fulfill the role of headliner in the opening act of Canada’s Olympic drama.

And let’s rejoice in the fact that this country has several worthy candidates and a richness of talent qualified to fly the colours in Sochi.

Let’s consider the Five W’s of flag-bearing:

Who

The panel of people who choose the flag-bearer is small and intimate. It consists of the Chef de Mission, Steve Podborski as well as his assistants France St-Louis and Jean-Luc Brassard. The fourth member of the panel is an athlete representative of the Canaidan Olympic Committees’ athlete’s commission. 

Suffice it to say all have competed at previous Games and they convene under the COC’s Chief Sport Officer, Caroline Assalian. They consider the names of athletes who have been nominated by their NSF (National Sport Federations). 

In the past only one athlete has been selected to carry the flag into an opening ceremony.

What

This is the quantifiable part of the equation. 

The sporting achievements of the eligible athletes are considered. In other words, medals won at world championships and past Olympics as well as what the athlete is projected to do this time around can carry heavy sway.

For instance, speed skater Catriona Le May Doan won gold in Nagano in 1998 and carried the flag into Salt Lake City in 2002. “I felt I was chosen as I had demonstrated that I was still a medal contender going into Salt Lake,” Le May Doan recalled. 

Indeed, she won another gold medal in the 2002 Games in the 500 metres, and remains the only Canadian to have successfully defended an Olympic title in the same event.

Figure skater Kurt Browning carried the flag at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

“I remember being shocked that I had been chosen, then the logic kicked in,” Browning said. “I was a gold-medal hope in one of our biggest sports. I could justify it in that way… but as a person it was still beyond my grasp.”

When

Increasingly, the timing of competition has become a consideration when choosing a flag-bearer. Some have declined to be nominated because they feel their event follows too closely on the heels of the opening ceremony. The anticipated distraction and time away from preparation precludes them from accepting the honour.

An example of this in Sochi might be figure skating. 

With the debut of the new team event, the skaters will have already begun competition, and therefore Patrick Chan, a three-time world champion, as well as defending ice dance gold medallists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir might not be obvious candidates to carry the flag in Russia.

Where

Where the athlete hails from is also a factor. 

The provinces which contribute the most players to the Olympic roster are Ontario, Alberta and Quebec and allowance is made for choosing a flag-bearer who is reflective of the team. 

In addition, Canada is an officially bilingual country and in the past a number of those carrying the colours have been fluent in both French and English.

Why

This is where the intangible comes into play. 

Why is the athlete chosen to carry the flag someone who the other athletes will readily follow?

The Canadian Olympic Committee puts it this way in terms of outlining the selection criteria.

“Also to be considered are community contributions, the embodiment of Olympic ideals and values, as well as someone who is seen to be a leader by his or her peers.”

Le May Doan remembered this as being a deciding factor in her case. 

“I was also doing what I could to be a leader off the ice with work in local schools, charities and in terms of volunteering,” she said.

Indeed, the complete athlete who is able not only to perform on the field of play but who can also enrich the lives of others, is a prime candidate to be selected as Canadian flag-bearer.

“I had won but had never thought of myself as a leader so I hoped I would be inspiring,” Browning said of his experience in Norway. “So I tried to be optimistic and confident and available to all our athletes. These were the qualities I thought were important in the person out front as we walked in.”

Browning finished fifth In Lillehammer, and in fact, never claimed an Olympic medal while appearing at three Games, Calgary 1988, Albertville 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994. He did, however, win four world championship titles, and to this day his name remains synonymous with figure skating greatness in Canada.

On Thursday in Ottawa, the chosen one will be revealed and it’s bound to be headline news from coast to coast. 

It’s because, like it or not, national pride is very much entwined with the Olympic experience and one of the lasting images of Canada in Sochi will be of the Maple Leaf entering the stadium. 

The person who carries it in will have answered the five W’s of flag-bearing and in the process attempt to portray something which is becoming increasingly important in our country.

Simply put, the flag-bearer must reflect a winning attitude.

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