Saturday, August 11, 2012

Canada's Closing Ceremonies Flag Bearer

Christine Sinclair, Canadian women's soccer team captain
credit:Getty Images
The headlines are screaming at us from all corners of the internet. Well, all Canadian corners, that is. "Christine Sinclair for flag bearer," says coach John Herdman. "#SinclairForFlagBearer" is the hashtag of a Twitter campaign that has a lot of supporters. A lot of them. "Christine Sinclair selected as Sun Media's flag bearer," declares Québecor Média, who then pronounce the matter closed. Well, I guess that's settled it then, right? Who am I to argue with the Toronto Sun?

Except that hasn't settled it. Not by a long shot. Not for me and hopefully not for the people who are actually in charge of such decisions.

I am not saying that Christine Sinclair should not be part of the discussion. She was the leading scorer in a soccer tournament that resulted in Canada's first medal in a "traditional" team sport at the Summer Olympics since 1936. She was captain of our women's soccer team, an inspirational leader and a role model, especially now, for many little girls all over this country. But if she hadn't been a soccer player and had performed many of the same feats, would she be such an overwhelming choice for everyone? If Christine Sinclair had chosen to play, say, volleyball and been the leading point-getter on a bronze-medal winning team, would there be a similar Twitter campaign with so many followers? I sincerely doubt it. Many of you who know me are aware of my intense dislike of the sport of soccer and I will admit it may be colouring my judgment here; but then that is exactly what I am accusing it of doing to millions of Canadians who are so convinced that Sinclair should be the flag-bearer on Sunday night that they refuse to even discuss it. This is one of the reasons I really dislike soccer: its unfathomable hold on so many otherwise rational people the world over. But I don't wish this post to devolve into another of my rants about soccer; rather, I wish to discuss the many other excellent athletes who should be mentioned in equal measures as flag-bearer hopefuls.

Rosie MacClennan, owner of Canada's only gold in 2012
Such as Rosannagh "Rosie" MacLennan. Her positively unwatchable, saccharine-laced profile on Rick Hansen's The Difference Makers notwithstanding (did they really get a stunt double to play her late grandfather, waving from behind a tree at the adult version of Rosie on a backyard trampoline? *shudder*), MacLennan is our only gold medal winner at the 2012 Olympics, saving us from tying our humiliating home-field performance of zero golds in 1976. For my money, any discussion about our flag-bearer should begin and end with the sole event winner this country produced in London. I think Rosie MacLennan should be carrying our flag into the stadium on Sunday night, but that's only my own opinion and I am willing to look at other possibilities. For one thing, there is a great groundswell of support for the notion that the Olympic spirit isn't all about winning, which, by their very motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius ("Swifter, Higher, Stronger") is categorically precisely what the Olympics spirit is all about...but that's a subject that deserves a post all its own. For the purposes of this piece, let's go along with that ideal; let's remember the incredible story of Vanderlei de Lima, bronze medalist in the marathon in Athens after a crazed lunatic attacked him late in a race he had virtually sewn up as the leader. Let's have a look at some Canadians who persevered through some remarkable hardship and pain to complete their events, albeit without medals.

The incomparable Clara Hughes
credit: Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Let's begin with Clara Hughes. 2012 marked her last appearance in any Olympic Games and she finished her incredible career with one gold, one silver and four bronze medals in two completely different disciplines (speedskating and cycling). She is tied with Cindy Klassen as Canada's most-decorated Olympian ever and she is the only person in the world to have won multiple medals in each of the Summer and Winter Games. Is she bringing home a medal this year? No, she is not. In the final Olympic event of her career she finished 5th in the road racing time trials, expressing profound disappointment that she couldn't have finished on the podium one last time. But here's something interesting: Hughes competed with an injury that she had been training with since a crash in May, a broken back. Yes, that is correct: Clara Hughes was disappointed with her 5th-place finish even though she competed at the Olympic Games with a fractured vertebra in her back. No medal but incredible perseverance from perhaps our greatest-ever Olympian.

Emily Batty, competing against the course and herself
credit: Frank Gunn, CP
But Hughes' story was by no means unique. There was shotputter Dylan Armstrong, suffering from a bone chip in his elbow for all of 2012 that caused him to miss huge chunks of his training time. Or how about Alexandre Despatie, who was competing with a concussion suffered in a horrifying accident in June of this year, a huge and ugly scar across his hairline the only visible evidence of his condition. The dive that he was working on when he suffered his injury also happened to be the one for which he received the highest marks in London. Even though he finished 11th in his Olympic finale, he was performing equilibrium-baffling dives with an injury that might have kept many of us from even being able to drive a car. But the tribulations of both of these men pale in comparison to what Emily Batty worked through today. She finished 24th out of 30 riders in the mountain bike finals, nearly two hours of grueling racing over bumpy and hilly terrain, designed to take its toll on even the fittest of competitors. Why is this remarkable? Because Emily Batty competed today with a broken collarbone and possible cracked rib, injuries she suffered in a crash while training just four days ago. She competed in a mountain bike race with a broken collarbone. And not only did she finish, she beat six other competitors. As far as I am concerned, the only thing which might knock Batty out of contention to be our flag-bearer is the very simple fact that she likely cannot hold the flag for that long with this injury. And what of Paula Findlay? Suffering through (according to Simon Whitfield) a year of bad handling and poor medical advice after sustaining a hip injury, she limped over the line in the women's triathlon in dead last place and immediately apologized to everyone in Canada for her performance. If even a small amount of what Whitfield has said about her mismanagement is true, then maybe Findlay should be given the flag as our apology to her.

Damian Warner had an incredible first-ever Olympics
credit: Matt Dunham, AP
Had enough of the competing through horrific injury stories? Well, how about some Canadians who showed up in London and achieved Personal Bests at the Olympics? A list like that surely must start with 22-year-old Damian Warner who, at his first-ever Olympics, set Personal Bests in no fewer than six of the decathlon's ten events, an absolutely remarkable performance that enabled him to finish in 5th spot, four points out of that most Canadian of positions, 4th place. Or Ryan Cochrane, whose Personal Best in the 1500M freestyle was good enough to hold off the defending Olympic champ and take the silver medal. And then there are those athletes who have represented our country incredibly well over several Olympics and are ending their careers with medals, such as Tonya Verbeek, Brent Hayden and Émilie Heymans, the latter becoming the world's first female diver to win medals in four consecutive Olympic Games. Or if you want to choose a prototypical Canadian to carry our flag, why not pick anyone who finished in 4th place in their event, such as the women's badminton team of Alex Bruce and Michelle Li?

Jared Connaughton
credit: Oliver Morin, AFP/Getty Images
Finally, there's the sad tale of Jared Connaughton. While the whole world was watching the scintillating performances of the Jamaican and American teams in the men's 4x100 metre finals this evening (Jamaica shattered the old world record, America tied it in finishing second), in my home we were screaming at the television as Justyn Warner of Canada blew past the Japanese and French anchors to grab third place for our country and, seemingly, yet another bronze medal. As the four Canadian lads celebrated their victory with a flag-draped lap around the track, however, the word eventually came down that their team had been disqualified, for reasons that were as yet unknown. The men collapsed to the track in disbelief and tears while the networks scrambled for some kind of evidence of wrong-doing on the part of any of the four Canadians. Ultimately we were shown that, for the most microscopic of instants, Connaughton touched the inside line of his lane a couple of strides before handing off the baton to the anchor, Warner. A shell-shocked Connaughton was interviewed by Farhan Lalji on CTV mere minutes after this came to light and accepted all blame for the disqualification, not for a moment shying away from the harsh light of the cameras or trying to deflect any of the shocking error onto anyone else. He knew he had made the mistake that had cost his team a bronze medal, however otherwise inconsequential his misstep really was in the grand scheme of things, and he made sure everyone knew that it was his fault and his alone. When he finally staggered away from the camera, dismayed and a little broken, he had given his country so much more to be proud of than any ten medals would have done. And that's the truly amazing thing about so many of these world-class Canadian athletes that we so often overlook: not only do they have to spend their whole lives training to be the very best in the world at what they do, but also they must learn how to be gracious and humble and brave in equal measures whether they are ecstatic or devastated on the most public stage of all. And I honestly do not know which is harder to accomplish.

So yes, let's consider Christine Sinclair for the chance to carry our flag into the stadium on Sunday night in London. She's definitely been one of the best Canadian stories at these Olympics. But is what she did -- scoring a hat-trick in a losing effort and then failing to score at all in the bronze medal game -- such an amazing achievement that it was head and shoulders above all of the other athletes' performances I have mentioned here? Or is it, again, a case of the "World's Most Popular Sport" raising its ugly head and causing people to lose all sense of reason? And let's not forget that soccer is a team effort: what about the amazing save that Desiree Scott made late in the second half to keep the bronze-medal match scoreless? Or the coach, John Herdman, who took a team that lost all three of their matches at the 2011 World Cup and guided them, with minimal personnel changes, to our nation's first-ever Olympic medal in Soccer mere months later? Perhaps, if he wasn't British, he should be the one carrying our flag?

As I have stated already, my vote is for Rosie MacLennan; however, I would be happy with any one of the other choices I have spoken of in this piece. And if it does turn out to be Christine Sinclair, then I will be very proud of her as well.

But it will likely make me resent the inexplicable popularity of soccer all the more.


  1. For the record, I'm voting for MacLennan also. But I wouldn't mind seeing Connaughton holding it (although he might turn it down, thinking he didn't earn it or something)

    1. I was thinking that maybe he could "hand it off" like a baton, but then that's probably too theatrical and I'm just living in an alternate reality. :)

  2. Rosie isn't as popular or press-friendly as Sinclair, and her sport (trampoline) is judged as a joke by many, even some on Canada's Olympic committee. They don't want to see a taciturn trampolinist carrying our flag at the closing. What a shame, because she deserves the honor.

    1. She does, indeed. I can see that she isn't as popular, but again I think that goes back to my issue with the sport of soccer in general, but I don't get that she isn't as "press-friendly", though I haven't really seen either of them be interviewed all that much. Sinclair, when I have seen her speak, seems really uncomfortable to me and MacLennan just seems to handle the press in a much more engaging manner....but perhaps I'm reading things into it from my own slightly biased perspective.

      As for judging sports as a joke...that's a path I had better now go down right now. I believe you are right, though, sadly.

      In any event, thanks a lot for your comment!

  3. Didn't you hear on CTV last night when Lisa LaFLamme declared Bronze as the new Gold for Canada? Disgusted in our mediocrity. Rosie is the ONLY one who WON her event and this is the thanks the country gives her. I am incredulous! I don't know of any other country that would raise a bronze winning athlete over a gold or even a medalist of four Olympics (Emeline). I am NOT happy with this choice

    1. I tend to tune out Lisa LaFlamme. I still can't understand how their news anchor could not properly pronounce the name of "Lesotho" when they came into the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. So I didn't hear her specifically say that about "the new Gold" but I have heard several of her cronies pick up that mantle and repeat that phrase today. You are absolutely right to be "disgusted in our mediocrity", in my opinion. We are definitely backsliding, too, because the past few Olympics it seemed we led the field in fourth-place finishes (it got so bad that I used to call it the "Maple Medal"), but this year our new favourite position seems to be fifth. In other words, instead of turning our fourths into bronze we're moving farther away from the podium. I'm not impressed.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Connaughton showed the world the meaning of sportsmanship in how he handled the disqualification and acceptance of the decision. Sinclair, on the other hand, showed no respect for the rules of her sport and disgraced the country by whining about a referees decision - it used to be said that the referee was the sole arbiter of fact on the pitch and Sinclair and her team mates should remember this! Once that decision was made they should all have acted more like Connaughton not like the sore losers they ended up looking like

    1. That is actually an excellent point. I hadn't even considered that. Thanks for the comment!


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