Canadian flag bearers for opening ceremony ready

In the past, each country typically selected one athlete to carry its flag into the stadium for the Parade of Nations portion of the Olympic opening ceremony. But, as part of its "gender parity" initiatives, the International Olympic Committee recently amended its guidelines to encourage countries to choose a man and a woman to share the role in Tokyo.

Canada's flag-bearers, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are basketball player Miranda Ayim and rugby sevens player Nathan Hirayama.

Ayim, 33, is set to compete in her third and probably final Olympics. The 6-foot-3 forward from London, Ont., plans to retire after Tokyo, where the fourth-ranked Canadian women's team has a shot to win its first Olympic medal. Ayim played three games in the WNBA in 2011, spending the rest of her pro career overseas. She played the last few seasons for Basket Landes of the French league, helping them to the championship this year by averaging 11 points per game in her farewell season. Basket Landes will retire her number in a ceremony this September. Ayim and the Canadian team play their first Olympic game next Monday at 4:20 a.m. ET vs. Serbia.

Hirayama, also 33 years old, is from Richmond, B.C. He's played for the Canadian men's rugby sevens team since he was 18, and has appeared in more matches and scored more tries than any Canadian in the 22-year history of the World Rugby Sevens Series. The Canadian men's team, which finished eighth in the Sevens Series standings last year, didn't qualify for the Olympic debut of rugby sevens in 2016, so this will be Hirayama's first Olympic appearance. He's competed in three Commonwealth Games and three Pan Am Games.

This won't be the first time two athletes have carried the Canadian flag at an Olympic ceremony. Ice dance icons Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir did it for the opener in Pyeongchang in 2018, while bobsleigh teammates Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, figure skating duo Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, and rowing pair Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle have shared the honour for a closing ceremony after winning gold.

The selection of Hirayama and Ayim came as a surprise to most Canadians. That's not to take anything away from them — by all accounts, they're wonderful people who work hard, play at a high level and have earned their long careers. They deserve this, and they'll be excellent representatives for their country at the opening ceremony. As Trudeau said: "Miranda and Nathan are leaders on their respective teams. They embody the resilience, perseverance and excellence of Team Canada."

It's just that there appeared to be several more famous, and arguably more accomplished, options. To name a few: women's soccer team captain Christine Sinclair is the all-time leading goal scorer in international soccer and already owns two Olympic medals; 2016 decathlon bronze medallist Damian Warner is a gold-medal contender in Tokyo; and sprinter Andre De Grasse and swimmer Penny Oleksiak won a combined seven medals in Rio. A good portion of the country knows those names.

But choosing flag-bearers for the opening ceremony is as much about finding athletes who are willing and available to do the job as it is picking the best resumés. Sinclair, for example, is playing 800 kilometres away, in Sapporo, for her first two matches. Swimmers are in the pool the day after the opening ceremony. And the Tokyo Games present even more scheduling conflicts than normal. Athletes have been asked to arrive no earlier than five days before their events — all but ruling out anyone in track and field, which begins a week after the ceremony. It's also fair to wonder whether some athletes may have declined an offer because they're not comfortable attending such a large event during a pandemic. Spectators are banned from the Games, but an audience of some 10,000 IOC members, government types and other assorted VIPs is expected to be on hand at Tokyo's 68,000-seat stadium.

Three athletes in the Olympic Village have now tested positive for COVID-19. Two South African men's soccer players had their cases announced Sunday, and today the Czech Republic team said a men's beach volleyball player has tested positive. Also today, it was confirmed that gymnast Kara Eaker, an alternate on the American team, tested positive at a training camp in Japan. The Czech beach volleyballer and his playing partner could miss their opening game next Monday if the infected player isn't cleared by then. The South African men's soccer team plays its first match this Thursday in Tokyo. The two players and a team video analyst who also tested positive are in isolation and the entire team is being tested daily. Tokyo authorities reported 727 new COVID-19 cases today. A week ago, the count was 502. About 22 per cent of Japan's entire population is fully vaccinated.

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