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March 18, 2016

Saturday, January 19, 2002

COA blows choice of flagbearer

By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

 Elvis Stojko has been a great ambassador for Canada. He's not a jerk. Or a prima donna. He treats his fans and fellow competitors exceptionally well.

 He is one of the greatest male singles skaters in the history of the sport, an innovator who consistently has pushed the level of technical wizardry and, in doing so, helped sell figure skating to the mainstream sports fan.

 Three world titles, two Olympic silver medals (one he arguably deserved to win and the other he essentially managed with one good leg), numerous other international titles. You would be hard pressed to ask for anymore.

 In Hamilton last week at the national championships, there was hardly a dry eye in the place when Stojko appeared on the Copps Coliseum ice for his final free skate in front of Canadian fans. You can't manufacture that kind of emotion.

 The guy is a legitimate Canadian sports legend. He'll be in the Sports Hall of Fame soon.

 The Salt Lake City Games, Stojko's fourth Olympics, will represent his swan song on the international stage (although he may still go to the world championships in March in Nagano). At the end of this season, he'll be gone.

 Given all that, it says here that he deserves to carry the Canadian flag in the opening ceremonies on Feb. 8 at the Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium. But he won't. The decision has been made to award the honour to defending long track speed skating champion Catriona Le May Doan.

 Under normal circumstances, that would be fine. The problem with Le May Doan's selection is that the Saskatoon native already has carried the flag, in the closing ceremonies at the 1998 Nagano Games. It doesn't matter whether it's the opening or closing ceremonies. Le May Doan got her chance and should have been left out of the voting this time around. It's not like they hand out these things every week.

 What is with this country? We call two professional football teams the Rough Riders, we treat separatists with kid gloves and we give one athlete the honour of carrying the Maple Leaf at an Olympics twice. Meanwhile, there's a deserving person waiting in the wings who has never carried the flag and now probably never will.

 Traditionally, the honour carrying the flag in the closing ceremonies falls to the athlete who had the greatest Olympics for Canada at those Games. Le May Doan certainly fit that bill in Nagano, winning gold in the 500 metres and bronze in the 1500. There was no argument with her selection there.

 The opening ceremony is different. It usually goes to an athlete who is nearing the end of a stellar career and had previously won at the Olympics or world championships. Legends. Names such as Nancy Greene, Gaetan Boucher and Kurt Browning come to mind.

 Stojko never carried the flag in a closing ceremonies because he never won Olympic gold. There's an argument that he deserved the gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics (his second Games), but the judges decided that the Russian Alexei Urmanov was the better man on the day. In Nagano four years later, Stojko's chance for top spot was thwarted by a brutal groin injury, although he still defied the odds and managed a silver.

 Despite his great showing at the nationals last week, it's not realistic to think that the Richmond Hill skater, at 29, has a legitimate chance of winning the gold over Russian wunderkinds Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko in Salt Lake. If they happen to falter and Stojko manages the program of his life, he could win. But it's a huge long-shot. Realistically, this was the last chance for Stojko.

 But give the Canadian Olympic Association credit. It is consistent. It consistently screws up, whether it's a useless fund-raising lottery, or not being able to find a new CEO, or fudging something as simple as a welcoming ceremony for the athletes in Nagano (forgetting that Canada has two official languages). The COA always finds a way to blow it.

 Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the COA (which, believe it or not, does not stand for Can't Organize Anything) decided to do the right thing and name the flag-bearer a few weeks before the Games, thereby eliminating any undue pressure on the athlete and the possibility of a leak to the media.

 But then they go and blow it two years later by selecting the wrong flagbearer.