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COLUMNISTS

Sun, July 4, 2004

Who gets the flag?


Should it be triathlete Simon Whitfield, one of the heroes of an otherwise dismal 2000 Summer Games in Sydney? Or another gold medallist such as charismatic freestyle wrestler and sporting ambassador Daniel Igali, an athlete who embodies Canada's multi-cultural mix?

Or how about the new guard of Olympic stars such as Quebec diver Alexandre Despatie? Or none of the above?

Though it is in theory a ceremonial position, being named flag bearer is something most Canadian Olympians would cherish. The chosen athlete becomes a rallying point for the team and the initial face the country sees during the spectacle of the opening ceremonies.

"Everybody has a personal opinion and as a Canadian, my opinion may be different than yours," says Caroline Assalian, the director of high performance and games for the Canadian Olympic Committee.

"Canadians will be very proud of (all the nominees). We are thrilled with the quality of the candidates."

Both Igali and Whitfield would fit in that group after winning gold in Sydney and conducting themselves as gracious champions and proud Canadians afterward.

But by no means would these two be the only ones considered to follow the role of kayaker Caroline Brunet in Sydney.

The selection process is almost done and the COC plans to announce its choice on July 19, well in advance of the opening ceremony on Aug. 13.

The selection committee, of which Assalian is the non-voting chair, first solicited nominations from the various national sports federations. The five voting members than meet to discuss the candidates before making their choice.

The COC has done its best to make the announcement early out of courtesy to the athlete selected. With the honour comes a flood of media attention plus heightened interest from teammates.

GOOD DRAMA

"The feedback we got after Nagano when we selected literally 72 hours before the opening ceremony was that makes good drama but not the best performance," Assalian said.

Then there is the issue of making sure the selected athlete wants the job. Though he was all smiles when he carried the flag at Nagano in 1998, Jean-Luc Brassard was viewed by some as a whining ingrate afterward.

The freestyle skier, who was a medal favourite, finished fourth, then suggested that he was weary because of his flag-bearing duties.

It sounded like sour grapes and the COC promptly slammed shut that door of complaint by establishing a formal process that ensures the flag-bearer is ready and willing.

"We ask that all athletes approve and sign the nominations if they are put forth by their sport's federation," Assalian said. "That way there will be no surprises and those who are nominated want to do it."

Voters on the Athens committee include Canada's chef de mission David Bedford and assistant chef Natalie Lambert. As well, there are two athletes -- both winter Olympians so there is no bias to a specific sport -- plus one coaching rep, also from a winter sport.

Assalian isn't tipping the committee's hand as to who has applied this year, other than the list of nominees is likely to produce a name Canadians are sure to recognize.

Clearly the committee wouldn't mind an accomplished Olympian but will also consider their recent performances as well as their fit as a role model.

"If you say any name on the list that is nominated," Assalian said, "most Canadians would recognize that name because of their accomplishments not only at the Olympics but at the world championships."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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