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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Brassard a strange choice to carry flag

    By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun
      NAGANO, Japan - So who is that guy, who isn't Elvis Stojko, carrying the Canadian flag in the opening ceremonies of the XVIII Olympic Winter Games.
     And why?
     Has there ever been a more controversial call than the decision to give the flag to Jean-Luc Brassard?
     Canadians just assumed it would be Stojko, our highest-profile and most loved Olympian other than Wayne Gretzky and the hockey players who aren't here yet, leading the 153-member Canadian team into the Minami Nagano Stadium.
     Instead it's the guy from bumps? The man from moguls?
     Is this a guy-girl, French-English, Summer Olympic-Winter Olympic, Commonwealth Games-Pan-Am Games rotational thing? Or what?
     One thing I guarantee. This is going to go over like a lead balloon in most of Canada.
     It's not so much Brassard. It's his sport.
     Moguls, like snowboarding which makes its debut here, is the beach volleyball of the Winter Olympics. It's sexy. It's fun. It makes for spectacular television. But it has no history.
     In Canada, a figure-skating gold medal is 24-karat gold. A moguls gold medal is about 10 karats. And that's the truth.
     Brassard says it himself.
     "This is rock 'n' roll sport. It's less politically correct than downhill skiing.''
     All our flag-bearers have come from mainline sports. Hockey. Figure skating. Speed-skating. Alpine skiing. Going back to 1968, they've been Nancy Greene, Karen Magnussen, Dave Irwin, Ken Read, Gaetan Boucher, Brian Orser, Sylvie Daigle and Kurt Browning.
     A silver medal-winner in Lillehammer, Stojko has won three world championships during the Olympic quadrennial. Brassard, who won gold when moguls made its debut in Lillehammer, has won two world titles in the interim.
     You couldn't blame Stojko, considering the selection of Orser and Browning before him, to see this as a slap in the face.
     Heck, he was Brassard's choice.
     "Myself, I hadn't questioned it that much,'' said Brassard when hauled off the hill between practice sessions for a press conference.
     "My first thought would have been Elvis Stojko. He's very good. Plus his sponsor is Roots,'' he laughed of the company that will outfit the Canadian team for the ceremonies.
     "My second thought was Wayne Gretzky for all that he has done.
     "I didn't think further than that.''
     Indeed, a CANOE Internet site poll had Gretzky, then Stojko, with nobody else even close as the people's choice for the honor.
     While controversy is built-in with our flag-bearer back home, the reaction to the selection of Brassard here in Japan will be an enthusiastic ah, so!
     In Japan, Brassard is - by far - Canada's most popular and visible athlete. If he walked down Chuo Street in Nagano with Stojko and Wayne Gretzky, he'd be the one they mobbed.
     In fact, one of the sights to be seen here the other day was when 20 volunteers chased Brassard out of the freestyle skiing venue to have him autograph the backs of their jackets.
     In Tokyo, Brassard is everywhere, on billboards and the sides of buses.
     He is, as hard as that may be to believe back home, a cult hero in Japan.
     Brassard, 25, who grew up in the remote Quebec village of Grand-Ile, doesn't know - or care - why he was selected for the honor. But you couldn't find a guy more honored.
     That said, he still had to make a tough decision as to whether or not to accept. His event is on the first day of the Olympics.
     "When I learned I was the flag-bearer, it was good emotion,'' said Brassard.
     "It took me by such surprise. I had a thought I might be nominated. But that's it.
     "I think it is good for my sport. Very good for my sport.
     "Still, I had a hesitation to take or not to take the flag. It's something that only happens once.
     "I had a very good clue the night before and was told officially this morning. It was still a very tough call to make.
     '`And I must make it in a snap. It was very difficult to make that call with such a short moment.
     "But I had thought about going because there would be no day of practice because of the ceremonies. I think it is going to be such a unique show.
     '`And unlike Atlanta, the athletes will come in first so we can see the show. Imagine, they made something for the athletes. That's difficult to believe.''
     You may not agree with this selection - and I don't - but it's hard not to be happy for Jean-Luc Brassard. He's as charismatic, candid and accessible an athlete as we have here. He'd win everybody's Mr. Congeniality Award.
     But at the XVIII he's won the ultimate honor.
     The flag is his.
     And may he carry it well.