SPORTS

Olympic triathlon champion Simon Whitfield named Canada's flag-bearer

07/11/2012 02:25 EDT | Updated 09/10/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - Some consider it a jinx, others too much of a distraction, but Simon Whitfield says being Canada's flag-bearer will be his secret weapon.

The 37-year-old triathlete will lead the Canadian team into the opening ceremonies at the London Olympics later this month.

Whitfield won a gold medal for Canada at the 2000 Sydney Games where triathlon made its Olympic debut, and then captured a silver at the 2008 Beijing Games.

And the native of Kingston, Ont., suggested Thursday after being introduced as flag-bearer that the honour of carrying the Maple Leaf will help him reach the podium once again.

"It's a good luck charm," he said after accepting the flag during a ceremony on Parliament Hill. "Look at the guys, the people who have carried it — it's so last century that it's a jinx."

Canada's flag-bearer for the 2010 Winter Olympics was Clara Hughes, who went on to win a bronze medal in speedskating.

At the 2008 Beijing Games, kayaker Adam van Koeverden won a silver medal in the 500 metres after carrying the flag, though he also finished a disappointing eighth in the 1,000.

Whitfield said after he received a call last week from Canada's chef de mission Mark Tewksbury notifying him of the honour, he went for a run to the Terry Fox marker in Victoria, where he now lives and trains.

Along the way, he thought about his fellow Canadian Olympians such as boxer Mary Spencer and women's soccer captain Christine Sinclair. When he reached the Terry Fox statue he high-fived it.

Then he began plotting a strategy to ensure carrying the flag wouldn't be a distraction from his preparation for the Games.

"The logistics of it would have been difficult except I have a great team," he said. "...The first thing Mark said to me on the phone was that we will make sure this doesn't impact your race."

Diver Alexandre Despatie had also been considered a contender to be named flag-bearer for London but said recently he would decline the offer. While it's a great honour, he said, it's also a "great distraction."

The opening ceremonies are July 27 and Whitfield will compete on Aug. 7.

Whitfield is no rookie when it comes to carrying the Maple Leaf. He was Canada's flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies in Sydney.

"I have to be honest with you, I don't remember a thing," he said when asked Thursday about the experience.

"I was pretty young then and it was a blurry experience from just so much coming at me at one time," he added.

After accepting the flag Thursday, he squinted up into the searing heat of the morning and waved it before a crowd of curious tourists and dignitaries.

He was joined by his parents.

"In the course of Simon expressing his gift as an athlete, he has given Canadians cause to be proud," Whitfield's father Geoffrey said.

"In turn, through the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadians are making Simon proud by bestowing upon him the honour of carrying the flag of the Canadian Olympic team in London."

The selection of the flag-bearer begins with the different sports federations nominating candidates. A panel within the Canadian Olympic Committee comprising two athletes, a coach, the Games chef de mission and the assistant chef then reviews the names and makes the selection.

The COC also officially announced Thursday the team that will compete in London.

It comprises 277 athletes from 10 provinces and territories. They will compete in 26 sport disciplines, supported by 93 coaches and a mission team of 137.

Tewksbury, himself a two-time Olympian in swimming, said Whitfield reflects the entire team.

"We're a team that's filled with a lot of veterans that have been to many different Games," he said. "Simon represents them, the newcomers and every one of the words that the team is about: proud, unbreakable, relentless, fierce and world-class."

Equestrian Ian Millar is the oldest athlete at 65 years six months six days while gymnast Victoria Moors is the youngest at 15 years eight months seven days.

London won't be Whitfield's last race, but possibly one of his last. He and wife Jennie live in Victoria with their two pre-school daughters, Pippa Katherine and Evelyn. The road is wearing on Whitfield.

"It's a great lifestyle and a lot of fun, but I'm away from my kids more than I want to be," Whitfield said recently. "When they start to go to school and are even more busy, I'll want to be home more."

If Whitfield is still within striking distance of the lead after the 1.5-kilometre swim and 40k bike, it will come down to what he has in his tank for the 10k run in London.

His fleet feet were the difference in his race to gold in 2000 as an unknown upstart.

That prodigious running talent put him in an electrifying four-man footrace in Beijing, where Whitfield led coming down the stretch only to be caught 30 metres from the finish line by Germany's Jan Frodeno.

Thursday's news conference was briefly interrupted by a doctor protesting cuts to refugee health care benefits. He was quickly taken away but soon surrounded by reporters.

Doctors have been protesting at news conferences involving ministers for several weeks.

The federal government ministers attending the event had no reaction to the incident.

They presented Whitfield with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal as well as a flag flown from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

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