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  • canada sked medal results SLAM!  NAGANO

    Saturday, February 7, 1998

    Why was Elvis loser in flag flap?

     NAGANO -- Bumps skier Jean-Luc Brassard is a sweetie, a genuine world champion, albeit in a marginal sport, and a fine young man. He was a perfectly good choice to have carried the Canadian flag and lead the Canadian delegation into Nagano's Minami Sports Park last night for the opening ceremonies of these Olympics.
     He's a great kid. The rest of this story should not be taken in any way as rain upon his parade.
     But what on earth did another splendid Canadian of the same age, Elvis Stojko of Richmond Hill, ever do to deserve the Canadian Figure Skating Association, which asked him to fill out the nomination form that could have seen him chosen as the flag-bearer and got his hopes soaring -- and then, either out of negligence or small-mindedness or outrageous paternalism (and it's not yet clear which), failed to hand in the form?
     Poor Elvis. At a fancy-dancy reception for the Canadian team the other night at which Brassard was formally introduced as the flagbearer to a warm standing ovation from his Canuck teammates, Elvis was still laboring under the impression that his name had been put forward, and that it was merely a case of him having lost, fair and square, to a colleague he likes and respects.
     Stojko is a big boy every way but physically; he has long suffered with grace and grit the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune that is the lot of anyone in his sport who does not conform, completely. Stojko is a muscular, masculine, dignified and self-possessed presence in a sport that has traditionally valued the balletic on the ice and off it, the florid melodrama of the kiss 'n' cry. As my wondrous Sun colleague, Steve Buffery, noted in outrage, Stojko has been jobbed by the system and the judges, and now he has been properly shafted by his own association: It is as though he has finally completed skating's triathlon.
     But there he was, deflecting any criticism of the Canadian Olympic Association's choice of Brassard as the flag-bearer, indeed defending the decision, and he was still in the dark. At one point, he said it didn't matter that he hadn't been given the honor; it was enough knowing that he'd had a shot at it. Well, he didn't of course.
     But the skating powers-that-be left him in wretched ignorance, despite the growing kerfuffle over the flagbearer decision, just as the CFSA had also let Brian Wakelin, the very decent chef de mission for the Canadian team and one of the three-member COA committee which chose Brassard, publicly twist in the wind and take the heat for having "overlooked" Elvis and, for that matter, Wayne Gretzky.
     Wakelin never mouthed a peep of complaint, but truth is, the COA overlooked neither Stojko nor Gretzky; they couldn't have chosen either one because the names weren't before them.
     The story of how Gretzky came not to be nominated is less outrageous than Stojko's story. In reaching the agreement that will see National Hockey League stars play for their country's Olympic teams for the first time ever at these games, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the NHL and the NHL Players Association decided no player would be released from his league club before Feb. 8. Since that is a day after the opening ceremonies, that would seem to preclude any NHLer being nominated.
     But Canadian Hockey tried; give them credit. Bob Nicholson, the senior VP, had discussions with Gretzky's agent, Mike Barnett, to establish that Gretzky would be agreeable, and then with the NHL and Gretzky's own club, the New York Rangers. Pretty quickly, it became apparent to Nicholson that while he hadn't hit a complete stonewall, it would be prudent, given the need to maintain NHL goodwill in the future, to abandon the quest to have Gretzky's name go forward.
     So there you have it: In one case, bureaucratic indifference or pettiness saw Stojko snubbed; in the other, hockey politics saw the game's greatest player not even end up being considered for the honor of carrying his country's flag.
     No one ought to be surprised by any of this; there is no limit, it seems to me, to how little the athletes themselves sometimes seem to matter even at the games which are supposed to celebrate them, and to how dreadful are some of the decisions. The stupidity can be Olympian.
     I think here of that team reception at Canada House the other night. This is a gathering that is usually one of the nicest of the Games, where the beautiful young lions who wear the red and white come to be feted by the big shots and receive a bit of a cheerleading boost on the eve of the Games opening.
     This version featured two comics, Bowser and Blue, who struck me as tired and tasteless ("more cutbacks than the Jewish general hospital" was just one of their awful lines) and a program that was so lacking in French that even a Torontonian like me noticed and was offended.
     We are a bilingual country, for God's sake, and a good many of the fabulous young people in that room were Quebecers, and yet throughout the evening, the official program included only a minimal amount of French, the sort of tokenism we should have outgrown in such government-sanctioned affairs decades ago.
     God speed the glorious kids. As in the next two weeks, they go faster, higher, stronger, may they never know the leaden imaginations of those they leave behind.