There's no better expression of the "Olympic spirit" than the Parade of Nations and aside from actually putting a medal around one's neck, there's no greater honor for an Olympian than to carry his or her country's flag in the procession. At the Opening Ceremonies, each country’s team is preceded into the stadium by an athlete or delegation representative bearing the country’s flag, a tradition started at the 1908 Olympic Games in London.
The U.S. delegation doesn't always honor the most famous or most decorated athlete. More often than not, the flagbearer is an inspirational choice, an athlete who represents why so many Americans feel connected to Team USA--an athlete who spends years toiling at their sport knowing that the work may never pay off in a slew of endorsements or six-figure paychecks. An athlete who competes for the love of their country and the love of their sport. (Remember, unlike most countries, American athletes are not subsidized by their government)
Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who became an American track and field athlete, proudly carried the USA Olympic team's flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics(Credit Image: Orange County Register/ZUMAPRESS.com)
While many countries have yet to officially name their flag bearer, it appears tennis players will be front and center during opening ceremonies. The sport already boasts nine players named for the honor, including Agnieszka Radwanska for Poland, Rafael Nadal for Spain and Maria Sharapova for Russia. Seventeen-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer has already performed flag-bearing duties for Switzerland at two other summer Olympic games and it's being reported he may give another athlete the chance of carrying the flag on the world’s stage.
So who will carry the flag for the U.S. this summer? Should tennis star Venus Williams, who will be playing in a record-setting fourth Olympics in tennis for the U.S., be the flag bearer? With over 500 American athletes (more women than men for the first time) competing this year, there's a case for each and every one to carry the flag in London. Now, with just 10 days to go before the Games start, there is a lot of speculation about who the U.S. Olympic Committee will pick for the honor of carrying the star spangled banner on July 27th.
CBS Sports Blogger Bryan Fischer writes:
I think you have to whittle it down to a handful of candidates and with 228 returning Olympians (76 of whom are gold medalists), that seems like a good place to start. Victory in the Games can be fleeting, so the fact that nearly half the team is coming back should mean something -- no offense to those that are first-timers, they should just enjoy the experience of the opening ceremony.
Some of the many deserving athletes that have been mentioned as flag bearer include:
Michael Phelps, Swimming - Any athlete who has won 14 gold medals should be considered the front-runner for carrying the Olympic flag. Phelps is looking to add to that total in London by racing in seven events.
Natalie Coughlin, Swimming - With 11 Olympic medals in her career, Coughlin needs just two more medals to become the all-time leader in Olympic medals for American women.
Kobe Bryant, Basketball - Bryant is an international superstar who won gold with the U.S. team in 2008 when he was co-captain of the "redeem team". This will be his second Olympic Games.
LeBron James, Basketball - Topping off an already incredible year that includes NBA MVP honors, James is a giant in his sport.
Misty-May Treanor/Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Beach Volleyball - Although only one person can be the flag bearer, either of these athletes would be an outstanding choice. As a pair they have won gold medals in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic summer games and are two of the most recognizable athletes on the U.S. team.
Karen O'Connor, Equestrian - O'Connor, at 54, is the oldest American Olympian at the London Games. It will also be her fifth times at the Summer Olympics. She won team silver in 1996 and a team bronze in eventing in 2000.
Mariel Zagunis, Fencing - Her gold medal in women's saber at the Athens Games seemed to spark a U.S. fencing renaissance and she could become the first American since Carl Lewis to win individual gold medals in three consecutive Summer Olympics.
Kim Rhode, Skeet and Trap - Most people will have to Google Rhode's name but what they will find is the true definition of somebody who competes in their sport with distinction. Rhode is a five-time Olympian and while in London -- she can become the first individual American to win a medal in five straight Olympics.
Regardless of who is chosen to carry the flag for the U.S., everyone competing in London is a winner. Who do you think is the best choice for the flagbearer?
[UPDATE July 24, 2011] Two-time Olympic champion fencer Mariel Zagunis was selected on Wednesday as the flag-bearer to lead the 529-member U.S. team at Friday's opening ceremony of the London Games.
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