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Skipping Olympic Opening Ceremony A Necessary Sacrifice For Some Athletes

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CANADA OPENING CEREMONY
It's a huge spectacle, but many athletes choose to skip the Olympic opening ceremony. | Getty Images

LONDON - Canadian swimming star Mark Tewksbury watched the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics from the cafeteria of the athletes village.

Tewksbury, who won gold at those Games in the 100-metre backstroke, was hoping to get a leg-up on the competition by saving his legs from what he knew would be a long and physically taxing night.

"I got to the cafeteria and my main competitors were all there watching on TV too," said Tewksbury, Canada's chef de mission at the London Games. "But it was OK. I won it by six one hundredths so who knows? That might have been the six hundredths I would have lost."

Many of Canada's athletes are skipping Friday's opening ceremonies, some because they're competing the next day, others because they're housed in locations that are too far a trek from the stadium.

"Some people really get lifted by it and some people think the physical drain is too much," Tewksbury said. "It's a personal choice."

"The whole point of the Olympics is performance. That's the memory you want to take for the rest of your life and you've still got the closing (ceremonies). The closing is there and it's really the athletes' ceremony. It's awful to walk in an opening and regret it because it impacted your performance."

The ceremonies at Olympic Stadium, directed by Danny Boyle — the Oscar-winning director of "Slumdog Millionaire" — are scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. local time and end at midnight. Most of the athletes will be able to walk back to their housing, which is adjacent to Olympic Park, but it still puts them back at the village as late as 12:30 a.m.

Triathlon athlete Simon Whitfield of Victoria will lead Canada into the ceremony as the team's flag-bearer. They are expected to leave the village at 9 p.m. and enter Olympic Stadium at 10:15.

Canada's swim team won't march in the ceremonies, meaning freestyler Brent Hayden will be three-for-three in giving the Olympic opening ceremonies a pass.

"It's always kind of team policy that if you're competing within the first few days you tend to skip just because you're not going to get to bed at a reasonable hour," Hayden said. "Standing up for hours on end, tiring your legs out is not necessarily the best thing to do before a competition. We all wish we could be there. We all very patriotic and we would just love to be able to walk into the stadium with our country, waving our flags, but we're here to compete."

Hayden, who noted he marched in behind Chinese basketball star Yao Ming at the closing ceremonies in Athens, said the team will watching the ceremonies on TV at the village and will be there "spiritually and emotionally with the rest of the team."

"It's one of those things," said Hayden. "All my friends (ask) 'What is it like to walk in the opening ceremonies?' I don't know."

Several thousand athletes from 204 countries will take part in the ceremonies. The International Olympic Committee has pressed London organizers to make sure the show doesn't run late so that athletes can get to bed at a reasonable hour.

There are medal events Saturday in archery, fencing, cycling, judo, shooting, swimming, and weightlifting.

Canada's rowing team will hold its own opening celebration — with the athletes all dressed in their ceremony outfits — at its hotel near the rowing venue. Rowing begins Saturday, with the first boats scheduled to push off the start line at 9:30 a.m.

"There's no performance reason why we would (march)," said Peter Cookson, the high performance director for Rowing Canada. "In fact that could be a real detriment to performance. So the team made a decision a long time ago that we would not go to the opening ceremonies."

Midfielder Sophie Schmidt hopes Canada's women's soccer team holds a similar team celebration. The team plays South Africa on Saturday in Coventry, 150 kilometres northwest — an hour's train ride — from London, and coach John Herdman joked the team will likely be in the middle of a tactical meeting during the ceremonies.

Schmidt, from Abbotsford, B.C., said her squad held its own ceremony at the village four years ago at the Beijing Games.

"Hopefully we'll be able to replicate that," Schmidt said. "It will be our way of being a part of the ceremonies."

The sailing venue in Weymouth is a three-hour train journey from London — thus, five-time Olympian Richard Clarke won't be marching.

"With us having to travel up to London and then stand around for six hours for the ceremonies and then travel back here four or five hours on the bus it's a pretty taxing day," Clarke said.

The 43-year-old from Salt Spring Island, B.C., and teammate Tyler Bjorn of Beaconsfield, Que., compete Sunday.

Marie-Andree Lessard of Ville LaSalle, Que., and beach volleyball partner Annie Martin of Sherbrooke, Que., open play Sunday against Britain, but plan to march.

"We're going to go and be happy," said Lessard.

"There is an opportunity to take the turn and then get out," she said, noting athletes do not have to stay for the whole affair and can leave after doing a lap of the stadium.

Martin missed the ceremonies four years ago in Athens because she played the next day.

Canada will field its second-largest track and field team ever, with 45 athletes, but just four will march in the opening ceremonies: Melissa Bishop and Jessica Smith (800 metres), Rachel Seaman (20-kilometre racewalk), and Dylan Wykes (marathon).

The rest of the track team is attending camps in Germany and Portugal.

Olympic organizers decided to cut down on the number of people marching to shorten the ceremony in London, and so have limited the number of passes available to coaches and mission staff.

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