January 20, 2006

Waiving the Flag

Now, if you've been dying for more figure skating news, I'll have more next week, I promise (I kid). But this week we've got a full blown Olympic controversy brewing. How big is it? Well, when Don Cherry weighs in, you know you're getting everybody's attention. And not usually in a good way.

The flap started with this morning's article in the Toronto Star titled Our athletes refuse flag honour:

Most of the top candidates to carry Canada's flag in the opening ceremonies at the 2006 Turin Olympics — including cross-country skier Beckie Scott and speed skaters Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen — declined to be nominated for the honour so they can focus on their events. …

"The opening ceremonies are a tiring enough process," said Emery Holmik, high-performance director of Speed Skating Canada. "If you add all the demands of being flag-bearer and with a relatively heavy racing schedule, taking on that extra task is, as they've correctly evaluated, too great a load."

Cherry weighed in with his usual bombast, speed skating queen Catriona Lemay Doan jumped to the athletes' defense, and we were off.

I myself got involved in a fairly heated discussion on this issue with the smart folks over at sportsFilter, which certainly included a variety of different viewpoints. What follows is a summary of my own thoughts, and borrows liberally (sometimes word for word) from that discussion.

The criticism of the declining athletes hinges on two basic points. First, that athletes should be proud to carry the flag for Canada, and they might even owe it to the fans to do it; and second, that carrying the flag can't really be that hard. Therefore, as Cherry puts it, they must not care about Canada. The excuse about preparation is invalid; these are just athletes being selfish.

Now first of all, we should be clear about what the athletes are declining here. Each winter sport NSF can nominate an candidate athlete for the honour of carrying the flag. From that list, the COC will select the Canadian flagbearer. Obviously, to carry the flag, you have to actually attend the opening. And that's what the athletes have decided to avoid. It's not about going to the opening and carrying the flag, it's about going to the opening, period.

In 1996, I marched in the opening ceremonies in Atlanta. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was also, believe it or not, tiring. Not tiring like competition is tiring, but emotional, and exciting, and tiring nevertheless.

If I had been asked by my NSF if I wanted to be nominated as Canada's flagbearer, I would have jumped at the chance. But not all of my teammates attended the opening ceremonies, for exactly the reasons being cited by some Canadian athletes today. And our team didn't start competition until a week later, which is a lot more time than Beckie Scott and Cindy Klassen would have to recover in 2006. Most of the first-timers (like me) wanted to be there badly enough that we were willing to endure the five-hour (return) drive from our training camp to Atlanta and back. Most of the veterans did not care that much about going a second time, so they stayed at camp and got one more good meal and one more good night's sleep than the rest of us did. It was a judgement call, weighing the impact on preparation against the experience of the opening ceremonies, and different people made different decisions.

The athletes on the Olympic team have devoted years, or even decades, of their lives to their sports. The good ones have done that with a singular focus on the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, not to be there. Along the way, they've made thousands of small sacrifices. So now we should condemn them for deciding not to participate in a five-hour party on the eve of the most important competition of their lives?

Some people will say that's selfish. That somehow, Olympic athletes "owe" it to the public to make an appearance at the opening ceremonies, and to carry the flag if asked. That the Olympics is not just a competition for the athletes, but a spectacle for the fans, and the athletes have to do their part.

But to me, as a fan, the only part of the Olympic "spectacle" that is interesting is the sporting competition itself. So I think that the athletes, if they owe me anything at all, just owe me their best performance when it counts. And I'm willing to let them and their coaches judge the best way to get that done. Now it happens that many fans and many athletes are very excited by the parade of nations, so it works out nicely for the spectacle. But don't tell me that individual athletes should be forced to walk around the stadium in funny hats to make the fans happy. And certainly not if they think that it's going to compromise their athletic performance.

And do the fans really care that much, anyway? Well, apparently they do now. But if you're a fan of the Olympics, and you've watched the parade of nations, chances are that you've never even noticed that a significant number of athletes are absent for every games. It's never really been a big deal. But now the absence of Klassen, Hughes, Leuders, and Scott is bound to overshadow the presence of the majority of the team.

And that's the worst part about this whole story. Every Canadian NSF is going to nominate somebody who would be thrilled to carry the flag — some big names among them, I am sure (Jeffrey Buttle, anyone?) — and the COC is going to pick somebody, and half of the story is going to be about how Scott, Leuders, and Hughes didn't want the job. That's a shame for whoever gets to do it, I say, and it didn't have to be that way. It looks to me like the Star went looking for some inside information on the flagbearer selection, and got more out of the non-story than they ever dreamed of.

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