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Sunday, October 1, 2000
Simon's our man

Triathlon winner Whitfield will carry flag for Canada

By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

 SYDNEY - Of course the Canadian flag -bearer to close the Sydney Olympics was Simon Whitfield. He's been carrying the flag for Canada since Day 2.

 He's the people's choice and been since the beginning. Who else to make Canada feel good for the ending?

 It hasn't been a feel good Games for Canada. But close your eyes and you see Whitfield's pull-you-out-of-your-chair charge to win the triathlon. Get to know him, as most Canadian Olympic team members did as he went from gold-medal winner to team cheerleader, and you found a modest, charming, unaffected, fun-loving young man who was both the definition of how we want the world to see us and the way we want our athletes to be.

 And it was the athletes who voted on it this time. Not the poobahs. Chef de mission Diane Jones Konihowski said that's one thing which changed with these Olympics. This time it wasn't officials first it was athletes first. So there was no thinking about who carried the last flag and if it should be somebody French or English or black or white or male or female.

 A NEW EVENT

 Anne Montminy's silver and bronze aren't chopped liver, but the silver was in synchro diving, a bogus new event for which the athletes didn't even begin to train for until July. The tennis golden boys and Steve Nash are pro players. They don't eat beans for four years or pay the price Canadians have to pay to make it to the five-ring circus. No, there was only one choice for the flag.

 And Whitfield's reaction to the honor was typical of his reaction to everything that happened to him here.

 "It's a great thrill,'' he said. "Especially to be picked by my teammates, and I truly mean my team-mates. It's something I'll remember forever.

 "I really hadn't thought about carrying the flag or through to the closing ceremonies. This last week just flew by for me. I'm telling everybody we should all stay here and just hang out,'' said Whitfield, who is headed out, too, to be home in Victoria with his kittens in 36 hours.

 There are plenty of moments Canadians will remember fondly from these Olympics, including synchro swimming, which Whitfield listed as his favorite. One XXVII Olympic Games freeze-frame for him, and I suspect for the nation, will always be Clair Carver-Dias emerging from the water as a cyclist, in an Olympic sports routine at synchro swimming.

 "I went to synchro swimming two days ago and, wow,'' said Whitfield. "They were so impressive. They worked for two years together to make that happen and their routine was so different.

 "I went to rowing and I was so impressed with Derek Porter. I watched Steve and the guys play basketball. I went to the track three times ...''

 I asked Whitfield who he voted for to carry the flag.

 "Marnie McBean,'' he said, of the Canadian rower. "She couldn't compete. But that's who I thought should carry it. She prepared for four years and had an unfortunate injury. She stayed in the village and showed a lot of leadership. She was a real inspiration.''

 Whitfield says he couldn't imagine what it would be like carrying the flag in front of 110,000 people.

 "You had to mention that,'' he said of the size of the crowd.

 "How about four billion,'' I said of the TV audience.

 "That doesn't even compute.''

 Neither, he says, does going home an Olympic hero.

 "I'm having a ball living my life. I hope my life goes back to normal. I like my life.

 "I'm looking forward to resetting my goals to the World Triathlon Championships next year in Edmonton. I want to get back to the things that made me an Olympic champion.

 '`And I'm looking forward to the simple things back home.

 "If there's one change I'm looking forward to, though, it's the platform to talk to kids. I think that's going to be fantastic. I'm really looking forward to that.''

 Whitfield's life is going to change. And so will Canada's.

 "I believe we'll have a very different sport system for our athletes after these Olympics,'' said Jones Konihowski.

 "Our athletes train as hard as any athletes in the world and they don't train to finish fourth or eighth or 16th.

 NOT DISAPPOINTED

 "I'm not disappointed in our athletes at all. They've done incredibly well with a lack of funding. I look forward to a new sports system involving the federal government, corporations, the Canadian Olympic Association and the general public firmly committed. We can't continue to compete with a base this narrow. Our athletes are as good as any athletes in the world. We need to give them a better chance to succeed.''

 Indeed.

 With 14 medals, including Caroline Brunet's silver and Daniel Igali's gold late last night, Canada still underachieved at these Games.

 Not Simon Whitfield. He was 24-carat gold. He was the Canadian who put his name on the Games. He's the epitome of what we want our athletes to be. We just want more than one of him, that's all.

 There was only one flag to be carried for Canada in the closing ceremonies. He was the only choice to carry it.
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