Flag-bearer curse is 'pure bunk'

This topic is so overly hyped and stupid that I’m typing with reservation.

I’m inclined to hold the backspace key down until the title line is erased in the hope that the whole conversation capitulates along with every word I’ve typed.

But that’s not going to happen, is it?

So despite my better judgement I’ll carry on with my blog assignment, tilting at the windmill that is this idiotic assertion that one of the highest honours an Olympic athlete can receive carries with it a mystical blight of underperformance.

Firstly, there is a precedent to bearing the Maple Leaf at the opening ceremony.

Typically, an athlete who won a gold medal at a previous Olympic games is selected. Winning gold at the Olympics is really hard; harder still is defending that gold four years later. Catriona Le May Doan is the only Canadian to ever defend an Olympic title in an individual event. She also carried our flag at the closing ceremonies in Nagano and opening of Salt Lake City. She is the poster child for the campaign to dispense with this curse rhetoric.

Beyond sorcery and abracadabra, there have been some tangible theories of how the act of carrying a flag around might impact performance. I’ll highlight a few of these gems for the sake of thoroughness.

  • Fatigue. Whether it’s from walking for a few kilometres, standing up for a few hours, or waving a flag high and hard, this argument fails to consider one critical factor: We are talking about OLYMPIANS. Not to suggest that pedestrian activities don’t sometimes make a high-performance athlete's body sore (my coach said a game of darts once kept him off the water for two days). But these folks know their bodies better than a millennial knows their smart phone. An athlete’s competition schedule and how the demands that the privilege could impact preparation and performance are always taken into consideration by the COC, the coach and the athlete. If there are any concerns, there is no shame or dishonour in turning the offer down. Unless Don Cherry finds out, then you are in deep with Grapes.
  • Added pressure. Every athlete knows when a water bottle is totally full, you cannot put any more water into it. It’s physics. Full is full. Athletes use pressure like koalas use eucalyptus, or sled dogs use, well, dog food I guess. They use pressure like fuel, that’s what I’m trying to get at. I used a Billie Jean King quote in my previous blog so I can’t use it again, but you catch my drift. There is full pressure, extrinsic and intrinsic. There isn’t any room for more and that's a good thing, so if you could add more (which you can’t) it would be a good thing.
  • The mortal fear of tripping while on television. Whether you are on your way to accept a Golden Globe, walking behind the weather guy in front of the CBC building, or the next contestant on the Price is Right, the terror of this possibility affects everyone, except Olympians. Olympians don’t have fear.

So that’s it. I got the last word on the dumb flag-bearer curse discussion. Case closed, no more talking about it. Let’s be positive folks!

And to our flag-bearer here in Sochi, three-time Olympic Champion, one-time silver medallist, and five-time Olympian (she played softball for Canada in Sydney! Whaaat?), Hayley Wickenheiser, wave that thing high and hard cause we are all going to be screaming at the TV!

Just don’t trip. 


Hope, Pressure and Expectation: Finding a Winning Combination

Canada's expectations are placing even more pressure on the shoulders of athletes like bobsledder Lascelles Brown. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)


The Audacity of Hope is a book by the 44th and current President of the United States of America. He will not be attending the Sochi Olympic Games, but whenever I think about hope and expectation, as I have been in anticipation of Friday’s opening ceremony and the subsequent 16-day winter sport extravaganza, the title of Obama’s book springs to mind.

As an athlete, I’ve sometimes struggled with where on that hope-expectation spectrum I should gauge my confidence. Of course, I believe in myself, and I know I can win. Without getting too philosophical, I’ve wondered how close I can get to I should win, without crossing that threshold. 
I have never believed in destiny. I don’t believe that anyone is “supposed” to win. That’s why we compete. That’s the beauty of sport, there is no supposition.

Athletes need to be comfortable with the reality that it is their actions that will determine the outcome.

Hope isn’t enough for me either. It implies that I should simply have faith in some predestined result. 

As a sports fan, I’ve had a different relationship with the expectation vs. hope scenario. I hope our athletes win all of the medals and then some. I get more nervous for my fellow Canadian Olympians than for anything save my own races. But is expecting them to win everything overly audacious? 
I believe they can rise to the occasion and conquer the world in everything from alpine skiing to speed skating and everything in between (alphabetically and figuratively). But again, can and could, and shall and should are really different words.

It might seem like an entirely semantic problem, but I believe there’s something here. I’m constantly asked about the pressure we put on ourselves as athletes, and how the expectations of our great maple flavoured populace adds to that pressure.

First of all, athletes love pressure. They need it to perform. The great Billie Jean King (who Barack is sending to Sochi in his place) famously remarked that “pressure is a privilege.” If someone expects something great from you, then somewhere along the line you must have given them some reason to believe you can be great. That precedent of performance is crucial to an athlete’s ability to self motivate.

But what if instead of adding weight to the ample shoulders (Google: Lascelles Brown) of our Canadian Athletes, our expectations gave them a little spot, like in the gym (as if Lascelles needs a spotter). What if the pressure we put on our athletes to win, which is justified and important given our social investment, could give them that extra centimetre, that agonizing edge which is the difference between glory and disaster?

Trying to be the best in the world is innately audacious. That’s what makes these competitions so insanely exciting. Our athletes are willing to put themselves on the line, and do the most admirable thing. Try. They will sweat, bleed, gasp and cry, to try and get our maple flag up on the top spot and have them play our national anthem.

When our athletes win, it won’t be fate or a fulfillment of any destiny. The Canadian Olympic team has what it takes and they give their everything, everyday. They’ll win because they tried, and were the best.

So, I’m making a pledge. I am dispensing with any predestined expectation and prediction, but I’m going to do a heck of a lot more than hope. I’m putting my confidence in them. And I hope that helps.




After visits to 6 or 7 communities in and around Cotonou, Benin, it's time for us to go. We woke up before the sun came up this morning to catch an early flight to Monrovia, Liberia, only to find out at the airport that flight for the first leg of that journey, Cotonou-Accra, Ghana, was cancelled. No word as to why, but we're in transit limbo here so I've got a chance to blog-a-bit. Sadly, there's no rapidair service to Ghana or Liberia from Cotonou, so at this stage, it's not clear when we will be taking off. TIA!

The last couple of days have been an incredible whirlwind with visits with local RTP staff, urban and rural based play programs, local leaders (like a mayor and a king and the pope of voodoo, NBD), but most importantly kids.  Kids from Benin are like kids from anywhere - a little shy at first, but easy to break the ice with (various methods, including sharing your sunglasses, high-fives, taking their picture and showing them the screen, goofy dancing, sacred offerings like caramels or a chiclet, any kind of kickable object - ball shaped or otherwise, have all proven effective), once we were all friends the games could commence, and general silliness coupled with an eventual valuable life-lesson would ensue.

Our first stop was Ouidah.  As soon as we left the city we abandoned fairly familiar french for local languages like "Foh", with the exception of an occasional "d'accord" or "merci", Foh is impossible to follow along with... I mean, all native African languages are undecipherable for us, but Foh has a particular subtlety that renders my pathetically uni-lingual jaw agape. The kids in Ouidah formed two circles and we played some limbo and sang some songs. The lessons were based on avoiding peer pressure and being a confident leader. The games were meant to be embarassing, so that the older kids would fall on their butts (in limbo, being short is a massive advantage), and the younger kids would help them up. So when I fell on my butt, some younger kids helped me up... and we all high-fived. Then we danced around like goofballs and laughed at eachother and totally forgot that we don't speak the same language. We were speaking fluent goof-ball, so it didn't matter.

Benin was one of the 5 infamous slave trade ports, and there is a monument on the beach where countless men and women were treated like commodities and shipped off to Europe and North America as slaves. We drove down the slave road where men and women in iron shackles were lead and visited the beach called "the point of no return". As we listened to a short presentation by a man who works at the monument I couldn't help but be ashamed of humanity's most atrocious act. I'm glad we live in a world that learns generation by generation. I'm heartened that humanity tends to progress towards a more "human" ideal. 

Next we attended a short women's soccer game (game was short, the young women were mostly average height). Most girls ran the full pitch barefoot in higher-than-ankle grass. It was physical and intense, and the girls were excellent technicians.  After the game we watched a skit demonstrating a discussion between parents and an adolescent girl about her sexuality. It was an excellent forum for this demonstration - a captive audience of young teens, some community leaders, and the skit was performed by their peers. The parental roles were parodized by hilarious and oversized outfits (they wore their grandad's clothes, they looked incredible). Fun times were had by all!

Off we went to visit the Voodoo pope. I haven't done any research on who exactly we were to meet, but I will say that his house was... interesting, to say the absolute least. We were a little late, so after waiting for a little while outside in our sock-feet (no shoes in the Voodoo pope's house), we were told that the pope wasn't getting dressed for late people, so we left. I would have just as soon stayed on the soccer pitch.

On day 2 we woke up early and jogged on the beach, had a good breakfast of hardboiled eggs, pineapple juice, croissants with nutella-like chocospread and fruit salad. I had two large coffees with breakfast, but I still passed out hard in the van on the 3 hour drive on the bumpiest roads ever. While asnooze I smacked my head on the window so many times I'm almost certainly concussed, though the blurry groggy brain is also thanks to the anti-malarials we're all on. Hoppin' on goofballs!

We drove through the woodsy jungle for hours, and finally arrived at the King's abode. King Agbomansoatin Kponan of Ahouannonzoun is a the secretary general of Renafo, Benin, and he's also a Voodoo specialist of incurable diseases. We attended a kind of debate, or a forum, about child protection. There were speeches and presentations, thanks to RTP Benin's Jean most of it was translated to english or french... but I still may have nodded off once or twice. The king likes to talk! He's the guy in green garb, below. Yeah that's right, I had an audience with the KING. Take a backseat Lebron, this guy is the real deal.

After his speeches the neighbourhood kids put on a great skit about voodoo culture and staying in school. The king has recently made a judgement so that kids can fast track their voodoo initiation, which used to take up to 3 years, down to a week or two, so that they can concentrate on traditional education. He said that science and voodoo are complementary, so the kids need both in their lives to work and be fully developed. On our drive back we stopped for a really brave midday meal, spicy little whole fish on rice with smashed up peppers and Cocacola. I didn't eat the heads, but they were tasty.

Since we had a few hours to kill, CBC's Scott and Mark and I went into the central market of Cotonou to run around and grab some cool shots. I've been to markets in Beijing, Bamako, and crazy crowded places all over... but this was NUTS. You can buy anything. What do you need? Replacement parts for your Yamaha 125? An inflatable swan? A whisky bottle full of cashews? Textiles in every conceivable colour, shade and design? A goat's head? Sugarcane? A flip-phone? stereo equipment? smoked fish? spices, powders, grains and granulated who-knows-what? Yup, they've got it.

We just got some news... Ghana has granted us Visas for tonight and tomorrow, so we're leaving Benin now and staying overnight in Accra, and flying to Monrovia tomorrow.

My only problem is I have 0 blank pages left in my passport, so it better not be more than a stamp-visa, or I'm staying in the airport overnight. I need a new passport when I get home!

We're off, check back soon!

**UPDATE** Our flight to Accra went to Abidjan instead. I was keen to go to the Ivory Coast, but we decided as a team to go to Monrovia tomorrow... so I'm going swimming.





Our Right to Play Canada envoy team (CBC's Brenda, Scott and Mark, RTP's Leah and Ashton, and I) arrived safely in Cotonou, Benin this evening.  We are visiting the head office and some local RTP programs tomorrow until Saturday, and then we go to Monrovia, Liberia to visit their programming for the remainder of our trip.

The trip was good and team morale is high. We're all excited for the days to come, and I'll be blogging about it right here.

So check back soon!



photo: Pride Toronto 2013

I have resisted the temptation to write a long-winded blog about why the 2014 Olympics in Sochi shouldn't be boycotted because I don't think there is much of an argument for the contrary.  Boycotts don't accomplish anything positive and nobody has ever been a significant part of progressive change from their couch.  I've read and agreed with insightful articles by Patrick Burke, Bruce Arthur and many other great athletes and writers, and I think it's pretty clear.

But then I read an article in Now magazine by Susan G. Cole.  While she agrees that a boycott isn't worth discussing, she used some language which inspired me to chime in.

So I wrote this:

While I appreciate, respect, and even share many of the opinions of Susan G Cole, as an Olympian I need to yank my socks up and defend our “obsessed” diaspora of “selfish” dream-chasers a bit.  First, I’m shocked that a feminist would take such a strong stance about what I do with my body.  I choose to train really hard and try to be the best at something. Why would you begrudge me for that?   

Here’s the thing Sue: If the Olympics were in a perfect place, we wouldn’t be talking about gay rights.  Nope, if they were in Stockholm, we’d be excited for meatballs.  If the Olympics were in Vienna, we’d be leiderhosen shopping.  Instead, the Olympics are in the stone ages, and behold! We’re talking about it!  Just like when they were in China.  They opened up their doors in an unprecedented way, and by all accounts, those doors have remained more open than they were before.  Sure, they still have issues.  But I’m not so quick to call the pot black, or the pipeline the colour of bitumen, in our case.  Every country has issues.  I’m not suggested that Russia’s are justifiable, they most certainly are not. But I see the positive in all this nonsense, as you do, albeit from a slightly different point of view.

Not everyone likes the Olympic Games, and that’s good! I think people should disagree over things. To each their own. But whether you can identify with our silly spandex clad theatrics or not, you can’t deny that it gives pretty much everyone in the world something to squawk talk about, and in your case, something to write about, and presumably to be paid to write about.

So I’d ask that you’d simply consider the Olympics to be more than just a sports forum, it’s a forum for discussion, for change, for exchange.  It’s not just about the sports.  But it mostly is, and it’s also a big part of the reason gay rights are being so widely discussed right now, so please don’t take that away from the Olymps.  The Olympics do good.  They make role models, ambassadors, they create heroes, and provide inspiration and entertainment for billions.  They bring us together, not just to sweat and grunt and be proud of our colours, but also to talk, discuss, improve and progress.  I’m proud of all the Olympics does for the world, and I’m proud to be a member of a team whose dreams extend past the podium.

I'm glad we agree on the important things, and I'm glad we live in a place where it's okay to disagree, too. :)